Thursday, April 24, 2008

Solo Rewards and the Cherry Picking Problem

While I've been off finishing up my (real life) dissertation, there has been breaking news in the World (of Warcraft). In the latest patch now hitting the test realms, Blizzard has added personal arena rating requirements to both arena and non-arena rewards that did not have rating requirements in previous seasons and has removed one of the five sources for Shattered Sun Supplies, the daily quest reward that has a mere 10% chance to drop a coveted [Badge of Justice]. These two stories tie together in that each relates to the problem of players cherry picking rewards. In each case, the decision makes sense, but in each case it also hits the solo player population harder than Blizzard may be thinking (or caring, as the case may be) about.

The solo daily quest in question, The Multiphase Survey, in all honesty shouldn't have had even a 10% chance at a badge reward to begin with. The quest consists of flying for 2 minutes, putting on a hat, clicking the hat six times, and flying (or hearthing/teleporting/etc) back, typically without the need to fight anything. If you're an engineer, you even get to cash in on some free motes of air from clouds en route, and cooks have a 25% chance of the daily cooking quest being located right next door, for another easy 10G and some meat.

Nerfing this particular quest reward isn't the issue. The issue is that, if you are a solo player relying solely on daily quests for badges, removing one of the five quests means that the (real world) time you will need to spend per reward is increased by 20%. In practical terms, the time to obtain a 15 badge item goes from 30 days to 37.5, a 20 badge item goes from 40 days to 50, and a 100 badge item (if you were nuts) goes from an already crazy 200 days to a whopping 250. There was no need to nerf the rate of badge gain for solo players. There was, however, arguably a need to nerf the rate of badge gain for players clearing Karazhan for 22 badges per week, and for players clearing the daily 5-man heroic dungeon for 5-6 badges per day. Blizzard did not want to remove the incentive for players who have progressed past the likes of Karazhan and the Daily heroic to do those things, so instead they nerfed the free-standing quest that anyone can do.

Likewise, the Arena reward system has been problematic since its inception. Blizzard rolled out a system where losing 10 matches per week awards points that can be spent on decent quality gear and then were SHOCKED, SHOCKED when players started losing 10 matches per week, quality players started renting out their services to improve the rating of crappy teams so said teams would earn more points, win trading scandals emerged, etc. The new rules won't eliminate all of those abuses, but they will require that players artificially boost their arena rating in addition to artificially acquiring points before they can actually purchase items.

The part of this decision that was extraordinary was the choice to apply personal ratings to the new honor gear. By design, Blizzard has always left a few item slots on the old school honor system, where anyone can queue (AFK or otherwise) and slowly obtain enough points to purchase items without the need for organized arena teams. Requiring an arena rating to unlock a battleground reward item is like requiring a 10 man Karazhan raid to unlock a 5-man heroic dungeon - you need to already be doing a HARDER activity in order to be rewarded for doing an EASIER one.

Now in practical terms, this change won't affect much for this arena season. The existing S2 arena gear will drop down to the honor system, the S4 belt, neck, and trinkets will be available for honor as always, and the only change will be that the S4 boots, ring, and bracers will not be available to players who do not have an arena team. But the real question becomes whether arena ratings will be required for battleground rewards of the future. We probably won't have the answer to this question for a year or more - the expansion should hit before the end of the next arena season, and then there'll be at least one season with level 80 blue items as battleground rewards before we have to start wondering about what happens when arena rewards trickle down to the battleground general public. But, if the S4 ratings requirements are an indication of what Blizzard would LIKE to do in the future, the implication is that battleground PVP will no longer award anywhere near as many rewards as it currently does. Another avenue for a solo player to continue advancing their character at the level cap may be severely hampered.

As I said at the top, these changes aren't actually about whacking solo players. These changes are aimed at keeping much more serious players from gaining rewards too easily. There is actually a solution to this dilemma: lower quality rewards. The Shattered Sun Supply box had to be limited to 5 daily quests and a mere 10% drop rate on badges because those badges are good for ilvl 141 epic rewards. Meanwhile, most solo players who haven't spent time in the battlegrounds entered patch 2.4 wearing ilvl 115 rare rewards AT BEST.

Imagine if, instead of the Badge of Justice, the box had a chance to drop a Shattered Sun Badge good for purchasing ilvl 120 rare items. Say you put the Shattered Supply Box on every single Shattered Sun daily quest (instead of forcing players to do the same 5, soon to be 4, daily quests every single day cause those are the only ones that have badges), and it had a 100% drop rate for the Shattered Sun Badge. Even with those favorable conditions, the time to obtain a single reward that cost 100 badges would be far greater than the time it would take to get the same reward from a 5-man heroic dungeon run, and all the rewards would be safely below the quality of even the lowest end Karazhan raid loot. At the same time, many of the players who PVP now and hate it would have something else to do at endgame, removing much of the need for cheating the PVP system for rewards.

So why doesn't Blizzard implement low end rewards for low end players? Perhaps they're hoping that if they don't give the low end players any alternatives, some of them will move on to higher end content or re-roll instead of quitting. (Hint: I'm currently working on plan B, and it's fair to say that Blizzard needs to have something more compelling than a fourth level 70 character if it expects to keep getting paid after number three is done.) Perhaps they simply don't have the time to design content that won't be done by high end players (even though they do have the time to design content that will ONLY be done by high end players), and screwing over the solo crowd by pricing the rewards at a level that only the high end can afford is just the collateral damage.

But what is clear is that, in a game that markets itself heavily towards the solo crowd, Blizzard needs to have some better tricks up its sleeve for its next expansion or their subscription numbers are going to suffer. But that is another story.

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