Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Did Blizzard repeat their mistakes?

Back in October I pondered whether Blizzard would repeat the mistakes they made in the Burning Crusade. After six months of Wrath, and knowledge of plans for patch 3.2 we have plenty to look at in answer to that question.

As the day dawned on the Burning Crusade back in 2007 the obvious question for everyone was where to begin. And the answer to that was in Hellfire Penninsula, where everyone went to begin their journey through Outland. I remember those days well as I can remember the utter frustration I lived in trying to accomplish quests during those first few days. The quests weren't the issue, the issue rather was in trying to cram everyone on a given realm through the same starter zone at the same time, was. That lesson was perhaps one of the greatest lessons Blizzard would take away from Burning Crusade as they started looking at the next expansion.

Unlike in the Burning Crusade, Blizzard did well in Wrath by creating multiple starting zones. The reasoning is obvious, but the unfortunate side of it was that it made little or no difference on the first night and into the first week or two. The initial quest hubs in both zones are small and any more than a handful of people at either of them overwhelms the area and causes delay and frustration for those waiting to get the quests done. Once the glut of people finally got through the starter quest hubs and out of the the first two zones things started to run nicely, but oh those first few nights!

Unfortunately I'm not sure there really is a lot Blizzard can truly do outside of instancing or using phase technology to further stretch the population out. WoW's popularity is its source of strength, but also the source of its greatest problem in this regard. Simply too many people competing for the same mobs in the same area at the same time. In Vanilla WoW there were something in the nature of 4-5 million players, but by the height of the Burning Crusade there were around 9 million players and as many as 11.5 million players now. It must be difficult enough to develop a zone and hardware infrastructure that accounts for the current number of players, but then to have to deal with the totally unknowable--how many players to plan for in the next expansion--well, that just takes this to a whole different level, so it will be interesting to see how they handle this in the next expansion.

Outdoor PVP objectives. Unlike the Burning Crusade where I think all accounts indicate world PVP objectives were largely a failure, Wintergrasp has been incredibly successful. In the end, too successful and Blizzard has had to take successive steps to "de-incentivize" players from participating in Wintergrasp matches. In patch 3.2 they're going to go even further and make Wintergrasp (during each match) into a psudo-instance and limit the number of players that can participate in the battle.

In Burning Crusade there were four areas that featured world pvp objectives--Hellfire peninsula, Zangarmarsh, Terrokar forest, and Nagrand. With the exception of Zangarmarsh, the objectives and PVP implementation were sound enough but didn't account for population. And none featured any long term incentive to participate. Hellfire Peninsula is argueably the most successful of the four, if for no other reason than it was the single start zone for all characters coming into the Outlands. Taken together there were just too many world PVP areas, that spread whatever level of world PVP there was out to too great a degree, and there really wasn't any reason to continue participation beyond a finite period of time. Introduction of daily PVP quests related to each of these zones didn't do much to change that because there were not enough rewards from any area and honor could be more easily, and more quickly earned elsewhere.

Wintergrasp changed that paradigm entirely. I'm not ignoring the other smaller world pvp areas in Grizzly Hills for any other reason than they--in my experience (5 80's at this point)--are areas you pass through to complete quests while leveling then largely never visit again. So Wintergrasp was the answer to the failure in the Burning Crusade. Blizzard created a large zone with dynamic objectives, and offered a multitude of rewards for participation that enticed people to continue taking part day after day, and week after week. Best of all the zone offered something that no battleground offered previously--access to a raid dungeon that offered very good rewards in its own right. Blizzard knocked the ball out of the park on this one and deserves continued praise for it.

Dungeons--heroic and otherwise, and Raids are a bit more murky. In the Burning Crusade the clear emphasis was to run 5-man dungeons to obtain your "dungeon set", which was clearly intended for you to use at the initiation of your raiding experience. Outside of dungeon set pieces, or a few other items here and there, the loot was largely ignored. Especially in Heroic dungeons, where the loot tables were almost identical to the non-heroic version of the dungeon. By the time you were able to run a given heroic in the first place you probably had most, or all of your dungeon set so whether you continued to run specific factional dungeons became a question of rep rewards and the daily quest which gave you additional badges of justice. By the time you were raiding you really only ran 5-man dungeons for the badges, which gave you access to a large assortment of epic items through a vendor. That stayed largely the same through out the Burning Crusade as the badge vendor was updated a handful of times with new loot.

In Wrath the overall system wasn't changed all that much, though Blizzard did untie specific dungeons from specific reputations through the new championing system. They also removed "dungeon sets", which now means anyone can run any dungeon--or not run one--because the loot you require in order to begin your raiding experience is much more varied and easily obtainable. Reputation rewards are also more easily obtainable because of Championing and the emphasis on daily quests for each faction.

Whereas there seemed to be a greater incentive and need to run dungeons in Burning Crusade--even after you began raiding, that isn't really the case in Wrath. In Wrath, once you begin raiding, you largely lose interest in running 5-man dungeons. You might run the daily for the extra badges, but by and large, people simply do not run the number of dungeons once they start raiding as they did at the same point in the Burning Crusade which of course has a detrimental impact on those who are leveling alts and trying to gear up in order to get raid ready.

Blizzard recognized this problem and is addressing it in patch 3.2 by changing the emblems that drop from heroic bosses. They had to do something because it was already very easy to gain exalted with any reputation--even independently from dungeons--so nothing I can think of in regards to reputations would have sufficed. Instead they going to enable you to obtain the Emblems of Conquest (will be the second highest level of "badges" in patch 3.2) from any heroic boss, which will give you access to item level 226+ and below items from the badge vendors in Dalaran. That will incentivize people to run 5-man dungeons to a higher degree, but only so long as there are rewards which people want. I haven't see any mention thus far regarding adding new items to the badge vendors, so someone like me that has been raiding for a while will still have no more incentive to run 5-man dungeons post patch 3.2 than I did before. I already have more than a hundred badges of conquest and nothing what so ever to spend them on.

All in all I'm not entirely sure Blizzard created a better system in Wrath than we had in Burning Crusade. In some respects its better, but in others I think it's inferior to what we had.

Raiding, on the other hand, is much better. Blizzard recognized in Burning Crusade that people still had too little access to raid content. Burning Crusade was clearly better than in Vanilla in regards to access, but they carried over paradigms from vanilla into Burning Crusade such as keying, specific quests that had to be accomplished in specific order, and gearing before you could gain access to the next raid dungeon. Mid-way through the Burning Crusade Blizzard dropped most keying requirements, which immediately gave access to new raid content to more players. That of course didn't mean a given person would be any more successful in a new dungeon than they were in an different one, but people seemed to be happy with just having access. And Blizzard quickly saw this as key.

In Wrath they addressed the issue of access by creating raid content without key requirements. And raid content was created to smooth out the linear aspect of raiding. They also overlapped the difficulty of raid dungeons to a greater extent than I believe happened in Burning Crusade, which means a raid team has more choice in what they can raid in Wrath than previously. In Burning Crusade you had to clear Karakhan and obtain the gear the latter bosses in Karazhan offered before you could really hope to go on to Gruuls. And you had to obtain the gear offered by Gruul before you could really--largely--be successful in Mag's lair. There was some overlap between SSC and TK, but you clearly had to earn a majority of gear obtainable from both of those before you could go on to Mt. Hyjal and then onto Black Temple.

In Wrath you are largely expected to begin your raiding experience in Naax, but you can (and probably largely do) dip into Obsidian Sanctum for some easy loot from Sartharian. In Wrath Blizzard added another aspect to the raiding experience with "hard modes" that are essentially psudo-tiers of new content in existing raid dungeons. Sartharian can be killed after killing his three guardians for a given set of loot. Once your team starts to gear up and becomes a little more powerful you can start to kill Sartharian with at least one of his guardians for access to better, and more loot. Its a way to offer higher level difficulty to raiders without requiring new raid dungeons and at the same time enables access to everyone.

Blizzard also addressed another aspect of the raid environment in Wrath--the initial raid difficulty. In Burning Crusade Karazhan was a fairly difficult raid to start out with. People still speak about hating the Shade of Aran. In Wrath, Naax was purposefully made easier, enabling more people to get into Naax, and to be successful. So the leap from 5-man/heroic 5-mans is not nearly so great in Wrath as it was in Burning Crusade.

Blizzard also addressed the greatest complaint about the raiding environment in BC, which was the jump from Kara to the rest of the BC raid content. Kara was a 10-man raid, but everything else was 25-man. That created all sorts of raid/guild drama and was the source of many sleepless nights as guilds worked to field two 10-man teams and then meld them together in order to continue raiding post Kara. It had already been a great difficulty for guilds to adapt from the previous 40-man raids to 10-man, so then jumping t0 25-man dungeons was simply a hassle than a lot didn't need or appreciate. Over the course of weeks and months the issues worked out--either by guilds imploding and people spreading out to different guilds, or through creation of multiple raid teams in each guild.

But I'm glad Blizzard learned from that mistake in the Burning Crusade. All raid dungeons feature 10-man and 25-man versions. Guilds can focus on 25-man content or 10-man content as they desire and hit no road blocks along the way that would dramatically shake up a raid team. Most guilds focus on the 25-man content because of the better gear, allowing individuals to form friend groups for the 10-man versions, or to pug them for gear supplementation. It works out very well and has been well received in Wrath.

Unlike the 5-man dungeons, I think Blizzard clearly did better with the raiding. Not only were they successful with their desire to increase access but their creation of hard-modes and achievements adds an additional element to the whole that gives raid teams accomplishments to strive for beyond the basic elements of the dungeon.