Monday, March 31, 2014

A Landmark Occasion

If you haven’t heard of Landmark, it’s a new MMO by the Everquest Next folks. At its core, it’s effectively Minecraft the MMO, but boiling it down to that really does the game a complete disservice. A friend of mine gave me a Closed Beta key, and I played around for a good 15 hours or so over the past few days.

First, the developers are advertising this stage of development as a beta, but in reality it’s more of a late alpha. They’re absolutely nowhere near feature complete, missing a few basic things like caverns, water (static, let alone dynamic), health, combat, real crafting, and so on. Actually, the developers are pretty freaking awesome in that they have a blueprint for what they want to achieve in this stage of development, taking the transparent development cycle to the extreme. It’s a fascinating window into their thoughts as a team. It’s a minor quibble in the end, beta versus alpha, but it is a difference of expectations I had given the term “closed beta”.

So what can you do? Explore; harvest trees, plants, and minerals; perform really basic crafting; and build stuff. When I entered the game, after creating a quick character, I ran off to do things!

I made a decision early on not to rely on outside information if I could, because exploring is quite fun. After about three hours of mindlessly wandering, mining copper and chopping down trees, I had staked out a spot and realized…I couldn’t build. I needed to claim it! Which required building a claim flag as far as I could tell from the map UI. Of course, I didn’t know how to build anything, but I figured there might be something by the entry point, and lo, there were basic crafting stations.

But to make a Claim Flag, I needed Elemental Iron, which meant I needed a better pick than my stone pick. After making a copper pick, I ran off to find me some iron. After about 5 hours total playing, I had finally crafted a Claim Flag. When the developers mentioned on the closed beta intro video that, “this wasn’t a race,” they weren’t joking. It seems a little bit ridiculous that it took me that long to be able to actually put down roots somewhere. It’ll be especially vexing later once you can die.

Look at those pretty voxels! LOOK AT THEM!

One of the first things I noticed when mining things was how natural the voxel system felt. Don’t underestimate the feeling of chipping away chunks of earth and minerals, rather than breaking blocks: I still haven’t tired of the mechanic, it is awesome! It does lead to some interesting floating artifacts sometimes if you chip away at either side of a voxel, but it generally didn’t hinder me at all.

What did hinder me was the camera system, however. When you’re inside a hole you’ve dug out, your camera goes right through the wall with great ease, making it impossible to see anything at all. I found that the only recourse was to be in first-person mode when mining. Over-the-shoulder failed to be useful underground pretty well entirely.

Anywho, I went and found a spot to place my Claim Flag, in a nice pretty tropical forest valley. Most folks seem to place theirs on top of a hill or mountain, but like the hermit I am, I found a quiet, secluded spot way off in the middle of nowhere to stake my claim.

You can actually claim more land around the initial claim by crafting a different type of claim flag, but I certainly didn't need it yet.
Once I had put down my claim, I started clearing stuff out. Trees, rocks, and so on. I even laid out a stone foundation for the house I wanted to build. Once you’re in your claim area, you can’t mine or chop trees. Instead you use the building tools. If you want to get rid of a tree or a rock, you can just right-click and select “Delete” and bam, no more tree or rock, which is super handy. Unless that tree or rock rests partially outside your claim space, in which case nothing works. You can’t harvest it outside your claim, and you can’t delete it inside your claim. Also annoying, if a large tree has branches that rest inside your claimed area, you still can harvest it. Minor known issues, but interesting nonetheless. Really, just clear out the space before making your claim so you don’t need to worry about it.

After making everything neat and organized, I realized that I didn’t have any crafting stations to make props, or smelt ore, or anything really. So back to the portal I went to make a Forge. I also required a Tinkerer’s Workshop, and an Alchemist Station, too. But each of those required higher level materials than what I had.

I could mine Copper, Tin, and Iron, but I needed Silver and Tungsten as well. I also needed higher-level wood, which required a higher-level axe. So back to resource gathering I went. To upgrade my pick, I needed a better axe to get the wood. To upgrade my axe, I needed a better pick to get the minerals. The upgrade path alternates between the two: pick, axe, pick, axe, and so on. It feels good, and natural. However, like everything in this game, it takes an inordinate amount of time to get the resources needed to upgrade my tools, and make the crafting stations I needed. After about 12 hours, I finally had the resources I needed to have the crafting stations and building tools I had to have to build cool things.

If your crafting interface looks like this, you're stalling the game industry using a 15+ year old mechanic.
A slight aside, they are working on Crafting 2.0 (as they put it), but like every other MMO, “crafting” currently consists of having the ingredients, pressing a button, and waiting. There is literally no good reason to have that as a mechanic, other than that’s how it’s always been. WoW does it too, and it irks me greatly. If you want it to be time limited, then make the time count for something! Make it take 6 hours to smelt that iron. Or better yet, make it take 0 seconds, just have it happen when you press the button. There’s no gameplay here, it’s just tradition.

When you look how Minecraft does it, that’s where time can make a difference. When you’re making 64 wood sticks, it just happens. When you have to smelt 64 bars of iron, it takes time, and the limitation isn’t just time, its inventory space as well. Unless you build an automated smelter, of course! The trick for Minecraft, however, is that you can do other things during that time period.

FFXIV does away with all of this, and makes crafting like combat, which is far more engaging and fun in my mind, but not really necessary.

Be bold, SoE developers! Don’t do something just because it’s always been done. Make it better, or cut it!

Crafting stations in a very pretty stone room. I think the floor is some sort of gemstone or metal. Also note that you can give someone's claim a thumb's up if you like it, and folks can see how many people have done so.
Once of the cool things about exploring and looking for resources is getting to see other player creations. I’ll be the first to admit my creativity is severely lacking when it comes to architecture, not to mention my patience. What other players have done is absolutely astonishing. In a desert biome, I ran into a desert palace under construction, and further back another player had built a statue in embedded in a pyramid in the side of a mountain.
The "stained-glass" windows are raw metal I believe. You can see the pyramid in the background.

The statue is awesome, and there's an entire set of rooms and such inside the pyramid as well.
I wouldn’t even know where to start on that.

But! I had been gathering, exploring, and digging through menus long enough! The time had come to finish my house. Or well, start it.

And this is where Landmark really shines. Ignoring the fact that it took me nearly 12 hours to get the materials to create the building tools, Landmark absolutely will change the way sandbox building games will be made in the future.

The building UI really, really shines. Landmark at its best is building things.
While inside your claimed area, you get to use your building tools. You start with the basic tools of add, delete, and heal. Add and delete either create a cube of stuff, or remove a cube of stuff. You can technically change the shape from a cube to a slope, a sphere, or a number of other shapes, and using the menu on the left, you can also change the material.

Now, if you had to place walls and such tiny cube by tiny cube, it’d take you forever to get anywhere. In the screenshot above, I was using the selection tool. You select some voxels (the white ones on the right), hit Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, and bam! You have that exact shape and material to place (assuming you have enough materials in your inventory to do so. Cut and paste! Seriously, amazing!

The placement controls are pretty clever as well. In the image above you can see the axis I’m controlling is the vertical axis. Using the mouse scroll wheel, I can slide the placement cursor along that axis. And as the instructions indicate, I can switch axes, and I can also switch to rotation. I’m completely floored by these controls and just how well they work. My only complaint is that there is no strafing yet, so moving my character while trying to see if my placement is correct is incredibly difficult.

Now, in the screenshot above I’m clearly placing more of the wall, but I didn’t realize at the time that I could just make a selection using the selection tool and fill it with a material of my choice. So while it took me an hour to make the shell of the house, really, if I were to do it again now with the selection tool it’d likely take me 5 minutes.

Other tools you get are a line tool (which I have yet to use successfully), a smoothing tool to make your voxels mush together all pretty, and a fill tool (which I have also yet to use successfully).

But of course, since we have a fully-functioning voxel rendering system, all sorts of interesting emergent building techniques have surfaced, like inlaid patterns, and zero-volume voxels. The techniques used to generate some of these structures is crazy, and apparently the developers didn’t even have an inkling of many of these techniques. They’ve hit upon the holy grail of emergent game play.

Eventually, when they complete the ability to save off templates of your work and sell them to other players, I’m fully expecting to purchase awesome windows, doors, etc. so I don’t need to spend an hour just putting together railings, for example. But that will also be an amazing game changer as far as the industry is concerned.

After building the shell of my house, I spent a little time making stairs to it, and used my crafting stations to build props like lights and furniture. So now I have a cozy little (unfinished) house:

My gravel garden path all lit up, leading to my front steps.

The inside is simple, but having actual props like tables, chairs, chandeliers make a world of difference compared to Minecraft.

Granted, what I’ve thrown together pales in comparison to what others are capable of, but it was still a tonne of fun. Seriously, the building aspect of this game is the best, bar none. Which is unfortunate that it’s saddled with some uninspiring, lengthy gameplay surrounding resource collection and “crafting”. If this were an actual beta, I’d write the game off and say, well, it was fun for a bit, but given that it’s really an alpha disguised as a beta and we have more features coming down the pipe, I’ll be interested in seeing what other things they add.

Overall, the systems that exist are quite polished and relatively bug free. The client bailed twice, and I had to kill it once, which for 15 hours of play total is actually really good for a beta in my mind. I fell through the world once by using the add tool on top of me (makes me think that geometry calculation is done at the edges of materials and it figured I was “under” the earth rather than above). And of course the camera is extremely wonky. Everything else can be charted up to either missing or incomplete features.

Much of what Landmark is doing is pushing the envelope in the Minecraft-y genre, and I’m extremely impressed by what they have so far. I cannot wait to see what else they do. And I can’t wait to see what other creations players make, because the screenshot below from the alpha tells me that what players can do in Landmark is only limited by imagination and time.
I don't even... the level of detail is freaking fantastic!

#BadDesign, #Building, #FirstImpression, #GoodDesign, #Landmark

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

[WoW] In Orgrimmar, No One Can Hear You Hellscream

We finally downed Garrosh Hellscream on 10N on our Wednesday raid. We locked for literally a month straight (at 3 hours a week), and on the 68th attempt, we finally downed him!

I was a bit sad to have my Enhancement Shaman be there for the kill rather than the Holy Paladin I had been raiding with the entire rest of the raid, but having a strong DPS with fantastic off-heals really paid dividends as far as the kill went. 220k DPS according to Warcraft Logs, and 33k HPS. My Retadining is nowhere near that level of either.

Having a whack of defensive and healing cooldowns like Stone Bulwark Totem, Shamanistic Rage (with a reduced cooldown thanks to Assurance of Consequence), Healing Tide Totem, Ancestral Guidance all have a fair bit of impact on the survivability of the raid, along with some judicious Healing Rain and a lot of Chain Heal. Most of my Maelstrom Weapon procs ended up on healing.

But oh man, Enhancement Shaman burst DPS is insane. At the beginning of the fight with everything lined up I spiked to nearly 1 million DPS. According to Warcraft Logs, a couple pulls I actually spiked to 1.25 million. You know numbers are out of control when, but seriously crazy.

We did it though, and I'm so happy to have that kill under my belt! Garrosh was not an easy boss to get the hang of, and I want to thank my guildies for rocking it, and also Balkoth for some excellent advice on a previous post too. It was super helpful!

Without further ado, here's our kill video :) Most of the chatting/raid calling is me, but a few folks gave me some help/reminders, especially near the end of the fight.

#BossKill, #EnhShaman, #GarroshHellscream, #SiegeOfOrgrimmar, #WoW

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Make Gaming Your Own via House Rules

One of the best things about board games or pen ‘n paper roleplaying games like D&D is the ability to make house rules. When you don’t have a computer railroading you at every turn, you can do pretty well what you want, and house rules are those things that just make things more fun for your group of friends.

In MMOs today, the closest thing you have to house rules are basically how loot distribution works, or perhaps rules around role-playing—as most MMOs have no enforced constructs around either, or give you the opportunity to ignore said constructs.

An example of a house rule that my friends and I have for board gaming is, “Everyone gets one.” Which is to say, you get a do-over if you goofed and need to rewind your turn or whatever. Say you were playing Settlers of Catan, and you built a road and wanted to build a town but miscounted your resources, and you want to take that road back. “You laid, you played,” is the norm, especially if the next turn has already started; however, for us, sometimes getting that mulligan can be the difference between screwing yourself or being able to move forward with your strategy.

Chaostle don't need no house rules. Granted, there aren't a tonne of decisions to make to begin with.

For newer players, we often extend that to getting multiple ones, but most of the time winning for us is a bonus rather than the ultimate goal. Being able to dig yourself out of a goof can be pretty rewarding unto its own, as well, so getting more than one mulligan can actually kind of kill the fun (and it likely means that you aren’t paying attention anyhow).

In our D&D sessions, we have a couple of house rules we use. Combat can sometimes move a bit slowly, with all of the interrupts, options, people staring at the electronic devices, off-conversations, and so on, folks can be pretty distracted. In our 4th edition game, we use a “ready” rule—which I fully admit stealing from a DM panel at PAX Prime a year or two ago—where if your turn comes up and you know precisely what you’re going to do and execute it, you get +2 to your attack rolls for those attacks. It rewards those paying attention and keeps combat moving a little more smoothly. It breaks down a little for more difficult battles when the party starts really digging into the strategy of the fight, but then, a smarter strategy more than makes up for loss of the “ready” bonus in practice, and most people are engaged in the strategy discussion anyhow, so I count that as a win regardless.

Are they still called "house rules" if you're not playing in a house?

Another rule we started using only a couple sessions ago: the “mop-up.” Combat in most games has front-loaded risk. That is, things are the most dangerous at the beginning rather than the end. To this end, many fights most of the big threats are defeated first, and you often have one or two stragglers left over that aren’t a threat whatsoever, they may just be a small drain on your resources.

The “mop-up” rule for us in 4th edition D&D is if there’s one or two enemies that are not real threats, but aren’t likely to run away or surrender, rather than wasting time the party can just spend one or two healing surges (to represent the resource expenditure) to just win. No sense in taking another 15 – 30 minutes finishing the battle.

Now, at my (the DM) discretion, I can say, no the mop-up rule is not applicable. For example, if it’s possible that the stragglers could escape and warn their friends, or the final enemy is a lot more powerful than normal (or the fight is actually back-loaded in difficulty), I can say no, you can’t use that rule. On one occasion today the party opted not to use it because they figured they’d wipe the floor with the remainder and not incur even a healing surge’s worth of damage. It’s not really meant as a cheat, just as a convenience to skip past boring play where the outcome is effectively determined at that point.
The beauty of being the DM, however, is making all the rules. Who needs your crazy flat maps anyhow?
House rules making your gaming more comfortable, and often make things just a little more fun. If you have house rules that you use, feel free to share them! We’re always looking for ways to make our gaming better. Or perhaps, if you could implement a house rule in an MMO for you and your guild, what would you add?
#BoardGames, #DandD, #HouseRules

Sunday, March 16, 2014

[WoW] Should Monolithic Expansions be Obsoleted?

Be careful what you wish for, because sometimes you might just get it.

Blizzard has promised faster content delivery for years, and the player base has been demanding it be rolled out faster as well. Four months for a small tier of five to seven bosses and a quest area is probably a little bit too long (i.e.: Firelands, Trial of the Crusader), and a year for any dearth of content is much too long. To meet that demand, Blizzard actually managed to release patches on a pretty quick cadence for Mists of Pandaria. In fact, they went almost too quickly...

When you look at how long it was between patches, it was 2 months from the release of Mists to Landfall, which contained no raids, but did contain a plethora of new Scenarios, PvP sub-quests, dailies, storyline, gear, etc. From there, it was another 3 months until Throne of the Thunder King. 5 months for 14 bosses in 3 “wings”, which was probably a tad too fast.

Arguably Blizzard could have taken a bit more time to stagger the wings, as I know of many Heroic raiders who felt fatigued after doing 3 races nearly back-to-back, with only a couple weeks between each one, whereas the rest of us were just making headway into the first wing, let alone ready for Heart of Fear or Terrace of Endless Spring.

Two and a half months after that, Escalation came out, offering some new grinds for folks to participate in, and then 4 months after that was Siege of Orgrimmar. Again, about 6 months for 13 bosses (14 if you count Ra-Den). I think our raid, which did get started on ToT right on the button, could have gone an extra month in ToT. We actually downed Lei Shen with a week to spare because we just started locking the raid once we were at boss 8, and did so for a month. Granted, we only raid 3 hours a week, so I don’t expect everyone else to move at our speed, but I think an extra month wouldn’t have hurt too many people.

And now we’re looking at a year of more for Siege of Orgrimmar. That’s definitely way too long. Took us 6 months to get Lei Shen on Normal, and we’re looking at Garrosh in about 6 months as well--we’re locking until we kill him. We’re at about 45 wipes across three weeks so far. I think one more week and we’ll have him. So by that measure, another 6 - 9 months is appalling.

Take a look at the patch timeline below (requires Flash sadly, but mouseover for magic!). Those last two dots on the end? That’s the release window. “Fall 2014”. A total of 12 to 15 months after Siege of Orgrimmar dropped. If they’re hedging their bets, that hedge overwhelmingly needs trimming.

Guilds and raids fall apart in that empty space between expansions. With nothing new to do, people move on to other things, and inevitably some don’t come back for the next expansion when it drops. It’s pretty rough. So what’s a company to do to reduce that time?

If I recall correctly, the developer team at Blizzard is really split into two, and for MoP, staggered releases. Team 1 was working on Patch 5.1 while Team 2 was working on Patch 5.2. Once 5.1 was done, Team 1 started on 5.3, and so on. Ghostcrawler mentioned that at some point, I just don’t have the reference handy. And that’s a pretty damn smart way to go about things, up until you have the monolithic Expansion, where everything changes.

So the easy way they could have reduced the end-game time was let patches sit fallow for an extra month. Finish up 5.1, sit on it for an extra month while you move on, and then release it. Repeat for each patch, and we’d just be starting Siege of Orgrimmar in November or December rather than September of last year. Granted, by the end of the expansion they’d have SoO done months in advance, but is that a bad thing to get ahead of the curve for content rather than releasing everything the second it’s ready?

The other half of the story is the monolithic expansion. That’s a lot of work. When you look at the staggered approach they took during Mists, it starts to look a fair bit like Agile development, whereas monolithic expansions are clearly ye olde Waterfall development. Plan a bunch of stuff in advance, build it all, release it in one go. And for something like the Squish, that’s probably about the only way you could go about doing it rationally.

There’s also the bonus of getting an extra influx of cash thanks to selling the expansion, which any business would be crazy to let go of as long as it’s the expectation. When you’re talking about that much content in a single go, it really is a new game, too. I mean, look at how much goes into a single WoW expansion, and look at how much goes into FIFA 2014, or Gears of War 3. They’re not building a new engine, but they are upgrading it, and providing an immense amount of new content, so why shouldn’t they get paid for it?

But when you look at having to release more content and be faster at it, monolithic expansion development flies directly in the face of that, as evidenced by the fact that it takes a year and a half of development time to build said expansion. So should the monolithic expansion be obsoleted, at the risk of not being able to hit the reset button for things like the Squish, or at the risk of not releasing an entire continent at a time, but instead parceling out zones every 3 months? Is that really a better model?

Monolithic expansions are too lucrative for companies to give them up, but I wonder how long it will be before MMOs bleed out their populations for a game that updates faster, or just get bored with the current pace of delivery. Or are things just peachy and while people grumble, the status quo is fine and continue indefinitely?

Confidential to Mei Francis: STAHP.
#BadDesign, #Expansion, #Waiting, #WarlordsOfDraenor, #WoW

Sunday, March 9, 2014

[WoW] Right in the Heals

Rather than digging into Enhancement Shaman talents like I had planned, Blizzard dropped us a Dev Watercooler on healing in Warlords of Draenor, and wow was there a lot of information in there. The backlash was also pretty epic. But why?

The things Blizzard announced break down as follows:
  • Doubling of health pools and monster damage, but not doubling healer throughput
  • Toning down absorbs
  • Making “smart” heals dumber
  • Reducing the efficiency of AoE heals, either by potency or by cost
  • Removing the “auto-attack” heals
  • Increasing base mana regen and reducing scaling
  • Adding cast times to the majority of instant heals

That is a lot of changes, and how they interact to create a bigger picture--along with other information Blizzard has already announced--isn’t necessarily obvious. My opinion on most of these changes is largely based on PvE.

Doubling Health Pools and Monster Damage, but Not Healer Throughput

Ignoring the changes with respect to PvP, doubling monster health and player health isn’t really that interesting by itself. Do remember that this is after the squish, so if someone had 15,000 health after the squish, they’ll have 30,000 after the squish and this change.

However, when taken in concert with not doubling healer throughput, it means that we’ll take more heals to get a bar from say, 30% to full. And that’s a good thing: the developers can have more play with incidental damage and don’t need to spike the tank to death. I have logs from our initial attempts at Iron Juggernaut where our tank went from 750k health to dead in 3 seconds. As primary tank healer, when I have lag spikes the tank often dies. We had similar issues on some bosses like Horridon in ToT.

Could we play better? Absolutely. Could the tank have more stamina? Yes please. We were still learning the encounter, but it was supremely frustrating to watch a tank go down in two globals. That’s bordering on Wrath of the Lich King where as a Holy Paladin I would do literally nothing but spam Holy Light on the main tank and hope to whatever deity of the Internet you want to pray to that I wouldn't lag spike while they were main tanking.

A single Divine Light crit hits for 300k+ from my Holy Paladin right now, without Avenging Wrath. Once you include the 25% shield for my Mastery, it comes to 375k of effective healing. Basically, I can do about a third of a tank’s health in one spell. That means to challenge me for spike damage, the tank needs to take more than 33% of his health per cast. That still ignores the tank’s active mitigation, the other healers, and any HoTs (or shields) I may have already rolling on him, so it really ends up being hit for a lot more. Not fun.

Compare that to the first couple tiers of Cataclysm, where it took about four or five boss swings before the tank would be dead. It turns the game from a reflex game to a longer-term thinking game, assuming you cannot ignore mana. It allows tanks (and other players) to sit somewhere between 0% and 100% for longer than a GCD, allowing once again for triage.

Toning Down Absorbs

Similar to above, absorbs are incredibly powerful. Tanks (mostly) die from spike damage, and absorbs smooth that damage out. Absorbs are basically healing damage before it occurs. If you’re Disc, today you still need to be smart about who you’re applying shields to, whereas Paladins just leave them everywhere they touch. But shields are the antithesis of triage healing. They prevent things like HoTs, and direct heals to an extent, from being effective, because the damage never really occurs. Toning down absorbs works in tandem with the previous point to ensure that folks can sit between 0% and 100% for longer than a GCD.

I almost wonder if they should retool Holy Paladin mastery. As much as I love having absorbs, I think they could change our Mastery to something else and still be okay. Perhaps change it to be like Cleave? That’d have issues where it’d be less useful on fights with lots of single target damage, but super powerful on a fight like Thok. Eh, I don’t know. But changing Holy Paladin Mastery would be a good step to reining in Absorbs.

Making “Smart” Heals Dumber

This one is rather interesting, for a couple reasons. The idea is rather than taking player health into account and healing the x targets with the least current health, a smart heal will just choose x targets who are injured any amount.

If you have a Healing Stream Totem and three players, one missing 1,000 health, another missing 5,000 health, and a third missing 15,000 health, today it would always target the one missing 15,000 health. In WoD, it would randomly pick one of those three targets.

The upside, according to Blizzard, is that we will supplement AoE with targeted heals to fill in the gaps. Basically, we cannot rely only on smart heals. Sometimes they’ll pick the right target, sometimes they’ll be useless. For a spell like Holy Radiance or Wild Growth, picking six targets means that you’re pretty likely to at least hit a few people who need the health now, especially if your targets are all at less than 100% health more often. You could still get screwed by bad RNG if Blizzard isn’t careful, though. It’s conceivable that three healers each use an AoE heal, and the one person who’s still at 25% health after the first tick because none of the heals touched him gets nailed and killed the next GCD.

The other upside here is a technical one. Smart heals today cause lag in raids, especially large raids where they may have to compare the health of all twenty-five raiders piled up together. By building a list of injured ones and choosing random ones rather than building a sorted list, they can reduce and/or avoid concurrency problems (especially if they decide to play loose with creating the list and not locking player health values while making the evaluation), and thus reduce the lag in large raids.

It’s an interesting question whether the technical reason prompted this and the healer philosophy was a happy side effect, or the other way around. Doesn’t really matter one way or the other, but as a developer myself I know that quite often technical limitations/optimizations must take precedence over user experience.

(Edit: See Rohan's and my conversation below. Basically, while I believe having no smart heals means less computational complexity, the bottleneck was and likely still is the number of healing events rather than the complexity of the healing events)

Reducing the Efficiency of AoE Heals, either by Potency or Cost

Hand-in-hand with the previous point, making people choose between single-target or multi-target heals is better than just always spamming your multi-target heals. Right now Holy Paladins basically use Holy Radiance in lieu of single-target heals because it’s not really much less efficient than Divine Light directly on the tank for Holy Power, thanks in part to Beacon of Light’s transfer. This isn’t ideal, because it means we’re making fewer decisions.

Rather, by either reducing the relative power of AoE heals, or making them cost more per point healed, they don’t automatically become our default heal. If they’re just as efficient as our single-target heals, why ever use the single-target? Dragon Soul and Siege of Orgrimmar both devolved into AoE spam-fests for the most part.

Removing the “Auto-Attack” Heals

Holy Light, Heal, Healing Wave, Nourish, etc. All gone. Honestly, they’re pretty well only used in earnest in the very first tier of play, and in the later tiers they’re basically used when we have nothing better to do. Heck, our mana regen currently is such that we can cast them for free. Boring.

In today’s healing climate, they give us a little buffer because if the tank takes a big hit, at least you had a heal already in progress. If players can sit at less than 100% health for an extended period of time, then having a low-cost, low-power heal doesn’t make much sense. Either cast the expensive, fast heal; the slow, big heal; or sit tight and let HoTs do their work.

Hooray, we get a button off our bars!

Increasing Base Mana Regen and Reducing Scaling

Remember Cataclysm? It sucked. Everything was really, really hard to start with. We were constantly running on fumes. Random heroics were a mess because the content was hard and we had to be really judicious with our mana with a bunch of folks who weren't prepared for the difficulty.

Increasing base mana regen allows folks with less gear to actually have some regen to deal with spending mistakes. The healing model in Cataclysm was fun (and largely mirrors the one announced for WoD), but that fun was completely trashed by the fact that the very little content we had at max level had a single difficulty: really hard. Between easier content to start with and the base mana regen increase, it should allow us to ease into the beginning of the expansion rather than struggle.

Remember the end of Cataclysm? The end of Mists? Between spirit and legendaries, everyone has so much mana regen that we can spam our biggest heals with impunity. Go check out Hamlet of EJ’s post on the Mana Economy. It’s extremely eye-opening as to just how crazy mana has gotten, taking into account spirit, cooldowns, trinkets, and the legendary metagem, you’re looking at nearly ~1.9 million effective mana over the course of a 6 minute fight.

With a reduction in mana regen scaling, it means the end of the expansion will look more like the beginning did. We’ll have a bit more mana to play with for more AoE heals, and more emergency throughput heals, but if Blizzard gets it right, we won’t be able to spam AoEs with impunity.

Adding Cast Times to the Majority of Instant Heals

This is the one I’m least convinced of as helping the healing model. Paladins and Shaman in particular already struggle with fights that require high amounts of movement (Tortos can go DIAF, thank you very much), while Druids and Monks can heal while performing backflips. This one seems primarily motivated by PvP (similarily with DPS also having their mobility reduced).

However, this should not reduce our total throughput. Before, you’d hit your instant heal, and have your 1.5 second GCD (reduced by haste). After, you’d hit your 1.5 second cast heal, and the GCD activates at the time the cast it started, so with haste they should end about the same time. Basically, we should be approximately GCD-limited still, rather than cast-limited. Rather, it’s just really annoying that we’re losing most of our instant heals. Well, except for Shaman. They only had Riptide to begin with.


If you were to take the above and compare it to the raiding environment today, you would rightly be severely concerned: this would be a huge nerf. However, keep in mind Blizzard will retune at least Siege of Orgrimmar to take these changes into account (and provide some good testing for the new model to boot), and further raids and dungeons will be designed with these changes in mind. As Lissana of Restokin said, "At some point, it’s like asking if a lime is a nerfed lemon just because its smaller."

Also keep in mind the other thing Blizzard announced: the new progression model. We’ll have normal mode 5-mans for all dungeons at level 100, with both LFR and Heroic 5-mans being valid methods of progression. Heroic 5-mans random queues will also be skill gated behind a Silver in the new Proving Grounds equivalent, so you won’t get thrown into a random group with a bunch of people who are incapable of playing at the skill level required--ignoring the fact that some may just not want to play at that level, but removing trolls from LFD is a different discussion with a different solution. As Ashunera of Wind Lashed said, "Cataclysm healing sucked because it was hard. This has very little to do with the healing style they aimed for."

For the most part, I think the changes are well-thought out and will bring fun back to healing. With enough content that isn’t just plain hard, I think we’ll have a model that gives us more leeway for planning and smart playing at high levels of difficulty, while allowing folks to continue playing without too many changes at the lower levels of difficulty. I’ll leave us with the following from Watcher:
#Expansion, #GoodDesign, #Healing, #WarlordsOfDraenor, #WoW

Thursday, March 6, 2014

[WoW] The Talented Mr. Holy Paladin. Did They Live up To Blizzard's Ideals?

My primary desktop machine went kaput yesterday, leaving me in a bit of a panic. Tonight we’re supposed to be working on Garrosh 10N (we haven’t downed him yet), but with no computer and being one of the three healers, what the heck was the raid supposed to do? Well, apparently, my “tablet” actually was powerful enough to raid on:

I actually use my real keyboard in this setup rather than the one on the Surface Pro.
Not ideal mind you, but it worked okay. And now I’m writing my blog post on it, hooray! Which is good, because having to RMA my desktop machine and not being able to get it back for a month is complete BS. So in the meantime, portable machine goodness.

Yo Dawg, I Heard You Like Talents...

Ye Olde Talents. Looks like there's a lot of choice, but more like a lot of traps.
With the new talent setup, one of the things Blizzard wanted to address was actually having real choices behind your talents. When you looked at the old talent trees, there was pretty well a best answer, and maybe 1 – 3 talent points that were optional. If you weren’t setting it up that way, you were doing it wrong and doing your raid a disservice. In fact, raid leaders would often use talents as an indicator of whether the person knew what they were doing.

So enter the new talent system. Six tiers, one choice of three each one. If they were implemented correctly, ideally you should be able to choose any of the three to fit your play style (or perhaps the encounter). If they weren’t, well, we’d be back at square one, with the exception that putting together 6 choices was way easier than putting back 51 points anytime a talent changed and Blizzard had to wipe them all.

Basically, Major Glyphs++, which does bring up the question of what role do glyphs play today other than being a big pool of talents where you choose three. But that’s a good question for another blog post.
New Talents! Do the exclusive choices make for interesting choices?
Today I want to look at the talents from a Holy Paladin PvE perspective and see if Blizzard made good on their design promise. For interest, you can see the popularity of each talent across all level 90 Holy Paladins where most of their gear comes from raids here:

The speed boost tier. Long Arm of the Law for the most part didn’t turn out to be a very good Holy Paladin talent, as we don’t really use Judgment outside of Selfless Healer builds. We also rarely need to run at mobs, rather, we’re usually running away. Rather, the choice was between the active Speed of Light versus the passive Pursuit of Justice. PoJ isn’t great as our instant spells mostly require Holy Power, and when you’re moving is when you need that Holy Power for the speed boost, but if you’re never going to use the Speed of Light button anyhow. For me there wasn’t much of a choice, however. The speed boost on demand is quite powerful for raiding.

The crowd control tier. Evil is a Point of View was really only useful to CC beasts (as Repentance already works on Humanoids), and Repentance is just… better because it roots things in place rather than sending them all over the place. Perhaps a better talent for PvP, but useless for PvE. But for most raid fights, you actually would rather have Fist of Justice. A ranged stun on a 30 second cooldown? Yes, please, especially given the sheer number of fights in Siege of Orgrimmar with stunnable adds: Immerseus, Norushen, Sha of Pride, Galakras, General Nazgrim, Spoils of Pandaria, Siegecrafter Blackfuse, Garrosh. So some choice if you must have a long CC, but mostly just the stun.

The healy tier. For Holy, this tier is really interesting now that Blizzard fixed the balance in 5.4. The default choice is Eternal Flame, which adds a powerful 30 second HoT to your Word of Glory. Paired with Holy Avenger, you can easily hit 7 to 9 people with full-powered HoTs, making your throughput absolutely off the charts, easily hitting 200k per tick across the entire raid (plus the Holy Radiance and Holy Shock casts to get the Holy Power [Geez, Blizzard, stop using “Holy” in every one of our spell names, please]).

But with the changes to Selfless Healer, that has created a completely different style of play for Holy Paladins. Weaving Judgment into our rotations once again, you can get quite high AoE output for relatively cheap mana requirements (to the point where you just pretty well don’t use Spirit for this build). I haven’t played much with it myself, but a few theorycrafters have utilized it to great effect, especially in fights like Thok. It is an incredibly niche build, however, and it doesn’t even register as a talent anyone wants in PvE.

Sacred Shield seems to be relegated to the sidelines, despite Holy being able to plunk it on three people instead of one. It’s cheap, but so is Eternal Flame, and that doesn’t require an extra button. But it is somewhat competitive, and more folks use it than they do Selfless Healer, so that’s something.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of the default choice, this tier does bring something interesting to the table as far as variety goes.

The utility tier, which is pretty handy overall. Clemency is the default choice, and overwhelmingly the most popular, giving all of your hand spells an extra use over the course of a fight by adding a charge mechanic to the cooldown. However, with all of the buffs to Hand of Purity and the 30 second cooldown, it can be quite powerful for certain fights, especially if your tank is a Monk as it works on Stagger. However, having an extra Hand of Sacrifice is still better unless the tank is going to be taking a tonne of damage from DoTs. Unbreakable Spirit isn’t terribly useful for Holy unless you’re aiming to cheese mechanics with Divine Shield every 2.5 minutes, and then most cases you’ll be using the extra charge for Hand of Protection for performing most cheesing. So for the most part, niche uses, but the default is best.

The cooldown tier. Sanctified Wrath is useless for Holy. Nobody uses it. 0% popularity. Doesn’t even register. Divine Purpose versus Holy Avenger is a far more interesting discussion. Divine Purpose is nice because you don’t have to deal with another button (the Active versus Passive choice that seems to work pretty well for talents), and is a great mana saver, but is random, so you cannot count on it. Holy Avenger is another throughput cooldown, and an amazing one at that, buffing your Holy Power abilities and making you generate three times as much Holy Power, every two minutes. Having this cooldown available is immensely powerful, as you can see from the Eternal Flame discussion above. Personally, I think all raiding Holy Paladins ought to be using Holy Avenger, but if you’re the type that forgets to use your cooldowns, then Divine Purpose is probably the better choice.

As an aside, I find it amusing that Speed of Light is more popular for raiding Paladins than Pursuit of Justice, but Divine Purpose is more popular than Holy Avenger. Clearly Active versus Passive isn’t sufficient to make the Passive choice the most popular, but I suppose the power gain averaged over the course of a fight for Divine Purpose versus Holy Avenger isn’t as clear cut as it is for Speed of Light.

The new ability tier. Again, we have one talent which absolutely nobody takes, Execution Sentence, and two other talents which are both relatively popular. Holy Prism is fantastically powerful, but if you aren’t used to using it on cooldown, it can be a bit of a waste. One could argue it eats up a lot of GCDs, but I find in practice it’s the most powerful spell I could probably be using for the GCD anyhow, so it’s not a loss whatsoever. And it’s free! Light’s Hammer, on the other hand, does an immense amount of healing in very short order if your raid is stacked up. For a fight like Thok or Megaera, Light’s Hammer is absolutely amazing. For most other fights, Holy Prism is a better bet because people can be moving around and you’ll still get them. Both abilities are pretty evenly split amongst the populace.

Blizzard has had the most success for the talents when they pit a passive choice against an active choice which is more powerful, at which point it turns into a question of how much mental throughput do you have to use on making those extra decisions, like the speed boost tier, or the cooldown tier.

Situational talents with a default are a little interesting, but honestly, we could likely do with just rolling the default into the class and wiping out the other choices. The utility tier comes to mind for this.

They really tried and came up with something really interesting with the healy tier, especially around Selfless Healer, but the default is still too easy and too powerful for anyone but the most advanced theorycrafters to play with the niche builds.

Overall, I think Blizzard was more successful in giving Holy Paladins choices than other specs, and I like the new talent system for Holy Paladins overall. Having two viable choices almost every tier is a pretty big win, and an improvement over the old talent system. There are still places to be improved, and I’m interested to see what changes they make and what the new talents look like in Warlords of Draenor (spoiler alert: I didn’t bother to look at the ones announced over Blizzcon because they were all going to change completely anyway).

I’ll be going over Enhancement Shaman soon to see if the same conclusions hold up there.

#GoodDesign, #HolyPaladin, #Talents, #WoW

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Banish(ed) The End Game

A little indie game by the name of Banished has taken the corner of the blogosphere that I hang out in by storm (or if you ask Murf of, by tornado after tornado after tornado if his Twitter is any indication). It’s a city-building strategy game. Think SimCity, but medieval.

The premise is simple, and so are the rules. You start with some folks who were banished from wherever they used to live—and nobody cares why—and are trying to build a new home. You are the one guiding their growth. You tell them where and what to build, and divvy folks up into professions such as Builder, Farmer, Blacksmith, etc. There’s no tech tree per se, so you can build whatever you want in whatever order. However, you need to have the basics up and running, so not unlike Minecraft there’s a pretty decent build order to get you started at least. Otherwise you may find Winter has finally come and your people starve/freeze to death.

Otherwise, that’s it. You just build, and make your city, and expand it. Now, there’s more to it than just that, because there are intricacies around food production, health, happiness, and other things. For myself, I ended up making a couple cities.

The town I learned how to play. Compact, totally asking for a fire, and fraught with issues to start with

City #1 was pretty rough, as it was all about the learning process. I managed to get my followers fed and warm for the first winter, but quite quickly I ran out of food the next year after. Turns out that you need a fair bit of surplus food before your citizens stop hoarding it like some squirrel colony and starving everyone else.

Once I had that solved, I ran into the issue where we ran out of firewood. Whoops, everyone was freezing. Thankfully, that was easy to remedy: just get more wood faster, and the Woodchopper would chop wood as fast as the Woodchopper could chop wood.

The next problem I ran into was my population dying off. Not from hunger or cold, but old age! Every person’s age is tracked—actually, their sex and family status is tracked as well—and in my town I don’t think I had more than a couple people under the age of 45. People get old, they stop reproducing, and while they’re still productive citizens, they take up family homes where other people could be reproducing. So I had to somehow get more citizens to make babies, and get all the old people out of the houses they were taking up. Strangely enough, dying definitely fixed half of that problem. Thankfully I figured out the issue just in time, and while my population basically dropped to about half, I managed to get a healthy younger population making babies.

Now, the hardest issue to fix that I ran into was when I ran out of tools. Here’s the thing, anybody who has a tool works at a given rate. Without the tool, you slow down (half speed, I think), which ends up cascading into a horrendous failure spiral. My Blacksmith had no tool, so she was making them at half speed. But then we ran out of iron for the tools because the Miners used up their tools and couldn’t mine iron fast enough to give to the Blacksmith to make more tools. And then my Farmers couldn’t harvest as much food because they also had no tools. Soon everyone in my village was tool-less, and the ones I was making were getting chewed through before I had supplied enough for everyone.

If I recall correctly, I lucked out in that a Merchant had stopped by my village and I managed to purchase 20 tools from him. I also started to make Steel tools, which last twice as long. Between the two of those, I got myself out of the failure spiral, but it could very easily have ended in disaster. Which when you’re first starting out, as you can read, is pretty much the constant state of your town. Always on the edge of disaster.
The second city I built, this one was the original part of my new town. The game is quite pretty.

So I decided that I was going to start from scratch with the knowledge I gained, and boy, did that go much more smoothly. In fact, it went so smoothly that it was kind of boring. I ensured that early on I educated my populace (as educated people work faster, apparently), and I made sure that I always had a large surplus of food, tools, firewood, etc. Slow and steady expansion until I had one town that had about 75 people and was self-sufficient.

Of course, once I had that figured out, I wanted to see if I could make a prettier, planned city, although I wasn’t going to start from scratch. I just built this new one across the river from my old one, so they could share resources, populace, etc. And it worked marvelously. And now I’m up to like 175 population or so, and two mini-cities on one map that are both self-sufficient. With 80,000 food saved up, and a surplus of 5,000 every year, tonnes of wood, stone, iron, and so on, a major disaster could occur and I’d be able to recover relatively quickly, assuming the disaster didn’t wipe out both mini-cities.

The second half of my new city, built well after the first. Organized, self-sufficient, and aesthetically pleasing.

And there’s the problem. The game was really good and really interesting up until the point where I had figured out an algorithm that worked, and worked really, really well. Since the only goal of the game is to make a bigger city, I suppose I could work on aesthetics and organization, but for the most part, the thing can run itself now. There isn’t really any decisions to be made that affects the survivability of my populace.

Thus I get bored with it.

Oh, I did have a tornado take out my forestry industry, but because I’m smart and had enough firewood and raw wood banked, the couple years it took to rebuild it all went by without a hitch. Basically, playing smart meant there wasn’t much of a game left. To be fair, I had the same issues with SimCity as well. There isn’t much of an end game to speak of in either game. Once you’re rolling, you’re rolling.

Is the start of the game really fun? Yes! Getting the city going is super satisfying, and depending on your start position, fraught with many different dangers. Once you’re self-sufficient and have a large enough baseline population? Dull as dishwater. Still totally worth the $20, and an incredible technical accomplishment for the one-person studio, and incredibly polished, as well. If you like the struggle part, it’s still a good 15 – 20 hours of entertainment for a couple of cities and getting them off the ground, which makes the pricetag more than palatable to me. So it’s definitely worth checking out, but I think I’ve checked out entirely at this point.