Thursday, July 31, 2008

Warriors need hit more than DK's

Much has been made of the comparisons between Death Knights and Warriors. Tobold initially said that he he would retire his warrior because DK's are more fun to solo, but has since conceded that he would not invite a DK to be a main tank. (I'm not sure if Blizzard has actually balanced for threat/DPS levels yet at this stage in beta, so that situation may change.)

I happen to be in the position of having a level 61 warrior in early Outland to compare to my Death Knight, and my initial impression agreed with Tobold's. The DK seemed much much more durable (indeed, Blizzard has begun to nerf Blood spec to compensate), capable of killing multiple, tougher mobs. Part of that is due to gear; DK's start with armor that's better than the early Hellfire Peninsula quest rewards, and indeed my DK is slowing down somewhat now that she's moved on. Then I took my warrior out for a spin and I noticed a big part of the difference.

Warriors need to hit things
That observation may sound kind of obvious, but it goes into the difference between rage and runes/runic power. Melee damage in WoW (regardless of class) is divided into so-called "white damage", the damage generated by your autoattacks and displayed in white numbers, and special attacks, which do damage displayed using yellow numbers. Special attacks have an inherently higher hit rate, which makes sense because you're spending resources to make the attack. The result is that, if your weapon skill/hit rating is too low (e.g. because you recently switched weapons and are 15 skill points behind) compared to the enemy, your white attacks will start missing before your specials do.

The reason why this matters is that warriors need to hit stuff in order to get rage to fuel their special attacks. By comparison, Death Knights can miss every single auto attack and they will still get runes and runic power to work with. The result is that the DK is much better able to handle foes that are slightly over their head. Of course, the DK also has significantly better AoE abilities than a Fury warrior does, and their healing capacity with at least a few points spent on Blood talents is substantially higher, but I was surprised to rediscover that the warrior can kill almost as quickly as long as I'm dealing with foes I can reliably hit with autoattacks.

The implication for warriors, unfortunately, is that they need to be cautious about overextending into content tougher than they are, at least until they can get a decent amount of hit rating. Casters are immediately considered whatever level they are for the purposes of spell hit calculations from the moment they ding. Other melee classes do also have to deal with the handicap of being at least five skill points below their current cap at every level up, but it feels to me like the warrior is especially hindered because of their dependence for rage.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is the WoW/Wrath beta UI getting bloated?

Here is a screenshot from the Wrath beta that includes the UI.

Compare it to the very oldest screenshot that includes the UI I was able to find in my screenshots folder, from one of WoW's stress tests pre-beta (summerish 2004):

Looks a bit more crowded, no? Let's go over the thing quadrant by quadrant, Wrath image first, and then WoW beta.

Top Left (Health Bars):

Alright, not much new here other than the numbers on the bar (which also can appear on your target, and target of target; I don't think target of target was an option at launch, and I'm sure the numbers weren't.

Top Right (Map):

Alright, so buff durations are good, as is the minimap tracking selector that went live in patch 2.3 (the magnifying glass in the top image). The blue B doesn't count (it's the beta feedback UI), the little round brown button brings up in-game map (useful), and the large button on the top right brings up the new Wrath in-game event calendar. The big picture of the Sun in its place in the beta image indicates whether it is in-game day or night (like the lighting doesn't make that obvious), and could be moused over to reveal the server time (which is now displayed on the brand new clock, added in patch 2.4.3 a few weeks ago).

Bottom Left (Action Bars):

Alright, here's one thing the "modern" interface improved on drastically; more action bars. I suppose you could bind keys to everything, but all classes need more than 12 buttons to function, and remembering shortcuts gets difficult for less-frequently used abilities (which are most likely to be off the bar). The other additions are the green rep bar (which I suppose is useful since rep grinds are such a common activity at endgame, though I'd rather have a Fubar plugin), and an indicator of which of the six "pages" of action bar you're looking at.

Bottom Right (Options menu):

First off, more action bars (there's a second vertical one next to the Netherwhelp). The number on the backpack indicates how many empty slots I have in my bags, and the key next to it is the keyring, holder of various keys such that they don't take real bagslots. The green bar next to the backpacks in the bottom shot is a latency meter; it has been removed from the modern UI, but the info is available by mousing over one of the other icons (I think the computer?).

And now for the options menus. The portrait is still your character sheet (but more on this in a minute), the book is still the spellbook, and the bullseye is the talent panel (missing from the beta screenshot because Druids did not have talents yet at the time, but it was present by launch). I cannot for the life of me remember what the heck the purple thing on the oldschool menu does (anyone know?). The shield on the Wrath UI brings up the new Achievement menu. The cup is still the quest log, the speech bubble is still the social panel. In the Wrath UI, there's an Alliance crest next to the social button (presumably a Horde one for Horde characters), which brings up the honor page (more on this as well in a minute). If I recall, the globe on the oldschool UI summons the World Map (moved up onto the minimap in the modern UI), while the green thing on the modern UI brings up the (generally unused) LFG interface. The last two buttons bring up game options and the help screen/GM tickets respectively.

Character Panel
I don't have a screenshot of the ancient character panel, but I'll settle for one last shot of the new Wrath beta pet/mount UI.

Players who do not have pets generally do not have a pet tab on their character sheets on the modern interface. (The pet tab has three subtabs, one for your actual pet, if any, one for non-combat pets, shown here, and an identical one for your mounts.) The fifth slot is currently reserved for the PVP tab, but it got bumped to the increasingly crowded options menu to make room for the new tokens UI (which is not yet implemented). If it were up to me, I would have attached tokens to inventory somehow rather than characters, and one could argue whether characters who have neither pets (combat or otherwise) nor a wide variety of mounts really need to have a tab on the character panel (which brand new players need to interact with from day 1). Perhaps it would have made sense to stick the mount/pet UI on the NPC Stable Masters found at every single settlement in the game for the benefit of our Hunter friends?

Bottom Line
Let's be clear, all of these options are useful to me. I've also been playing this game for four years now. Part of the increased number of features is convenience, and access to stuff players wanted to know (and coded mods for) from the beginning. Part of it is about tracking the increasingly complicated progression of the game (reputations, PVP/tokens, pets/mounts, achievements, etc). Others are optional (though, again, it's hard to play the game without some source of additional action bars. I'm not sure that there are very many, if any, of the features that have been added that are bad on their own. That said, I can't help but look at the modern UI and wonder whether it has gotten too crowded.

Perhaps your character sheet could go back to being a character sheet, and we could have a spellbook like interface that offers info on your pets, mounts, rep, PVP, talents, tokens, achievements, etc? Perhaps we can integrate the calendar, social panel, and LFG interface? Don't get me wrong, all this stuff needs to be accessible somehow, but the current interface is so complicated that it is actually hard to explain to a beginner (see how long it took me to explain just the buttons that are visible by default, to say nothing of the contents of your spellbook/quest log etc?). I'm not a GUI designer, so there are probably far better ideas than these, but I can't help but look at the interface in WoW today and wonder if it could be streamlined somehow. Ultimately, my solution is to run Bartender and hide half of this stuff, only activating the bag or options menus when they're needed, and that's a pretty drastic measure to have to take.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Amusing Beta Screenshots

There was a new patch this morning, and I'm re-testing some talents before I go back to rambling about Death Knights. One immediate big improvement: the pier at the Stormwind harbor is actually long enough for you to get onto the boat to Northrend without falling off. ;)

In the mean time, I took some screenshots that you may find amusing. There was one image that I didn't have a chance to record due to sheer shock. Fortunately, Mania's on top of things: Devilsaurs are now tamable. This is not something you expect to see stomping your way when you're in town looking for the inscription trainer.

Death Knights now have a new loading screen, and new glowing eyes. I have mixed feelings about them, if you rotate the character in closeup it looks kinda like they put a pair of glowing eyeglasses on the character's face. Ah well. Side note, the glowsticks of doom in my hands are regular old Outland weapons (the 1H swords from one of the first quests in Hellfire and honored with Honor Hold). Through the miracle of rune forging, your leveling weapons get to look fancy and glowing, even if they're the same as everyone else's. (These are simply reused enchant glows as far as I'm aware, and not as good as having rune-blades with actual runes on them, but the DK-specific enchants are free and thus you can afford to use them more readily.)

And the Tauren Chieftains are in the house in Shattrath. This may or may not be the first picture on the internets of a Death Knight attending an ETC concert. :)

This is the view flying into the necropolis where the Death Knight trainers live. Believe me, a flight point from Light's Hope Chapel is a huge improvement. Before today's patch, they teleported you into the area behind Tyr's Hand, so you either had to ride through (and probably die) or go through a cave that unmounts you so you can end up in the area above the mill near Light's Hope.

Death Knights are getting a new flying mount, which looks like a seriously malnourished chicken. It's currently only available in non-epic form, and I think it looks silly. Yes, I know, this from the guy who aspires to put a pink pigtailed female gnome Death Knight on a robochicken because I find it ironic. Even I draw the line somewhere.

And finally, I've been asked previously about the Barber shop. The good news is that the UI is in. The place is located behind the SW AH (there's a barber pole), you sit in the chair and this is what comes up. The bad news is that I wasn't actually able to change my hair (though I was able to replace my earrings). Perhaps next build?

Monday, July 28, 2008

How to Death Knight (to level 62)

Well, I've had a bit of time to put the Death Knight through the paces, so I figured I might as well post my impressions so far. I cleared out almost every quest in Hellfire Peninsula (starting at level 58, leaving almost done with 61) and have messed around with a few spec variations. Obviously, opinions may change depending on how things scale, etc, going forward.

Lore: What is it good for?
The new DK starting area is definitely well done from the lore perspective. There are some spawns that will probably be hard to get on launch day, and some issues with some quests that use the new vehicle combat mechanics. (Broadly speaking, in the rest of WoW your attacks hit as long as you're in range and your target is within your 180 degree cone of vision, whereas vehicles seem to require that you actually aim correctly. This is fine, but learning it under pressure can be a pain.) It definitely sets the stage for one of the plotlines in Northrend, as well as explaining where all these Death Knights flooding your cities came from. At the moment, the game doesn't do a very good job of transitioning you from the introductory questline into the real world (much less explaining why a 10 level detour to Outland before going after Arthas makes sense), but we're told this will be fixed later in beta. Overall, the lore is good. Rohan recommends that everyone try the starting area, and I agree, though you might be better off waiting a week or two for the rush to die down a bit.

General Power Level: High
So I spend a fair amount of my time running around doing daily quests, so I have some experience tearing through mobs with the benefit of better gear. There's simply no comparison to what the Death Knight can do to mobs at least as far as I've gotten so far. Again, part of this may be due to gear; the DK will get very few upgrades from outdoor quests in Hellfire Peninsula. Overall, though, this is by far the easiest romp though Outland I've had so far, even compared to my T2 epic mage (with practice in the TBC beta). I can solo tough elites and bosses, sometimes several levels above me. Crowds are not a problem because I can do some AoE damage, perhaps unleash a minion, and burn down one of the foes (which starts healing me enough to make it through the rest of the pack). Caster mobs are a cakewalk, since I have a skill that physically pulls them to me (stopping their spellcast), a pummel-like interrupt, a silence, and potentially a pet spell (for Unholy-speced Ghouls). I'm not sure if some of this has nerfs coming, but it's pretty impressive to see.

Double Edged Sword
To the extent that the DK has a weakness so far, it may be lack of control. I have massive amounts of self-healing potential, but the of these are proc dependent. (If the worms proc, you win.) Depending on spec, I have a wide variety of minions at my disposal, but none of them are fully controllable. (If you're willing to spec 26 points into Unholy, the default Ghoul gains a pet bar that allows you to direct him on what to kill, or detonate him if you tire of his antics. However, at the moment it does not appear to allow you to tell him to come back to you before he aggros more mobs, or to stay put/passive/etc. Seriously, PUG's are going to have a lot of trouble with DK's who can't control their pets.) Which brings us to...

The Rune System
In case you don't know, the Death Knight has the usual health bar, a runic power bar (where energy/mana/rage would be) and six runes. Runic Power is pretty straightforward. You get power for using abilities (kind of like warrior rage, but more emphasis on use of abilities rather than dealing/taking damage, and it does not decay anywhere near as fast out of combat), and use it to cast runic power abilities. The actual runes, though, are a novel and interesting mechanic.

You've got 2 blood runes, 2 unholy runes, and 2 frost runes, which you use to pay for abilities. Runes recharge automatically in something like 10 seconds after using them, kind of like a Rogue's energy bar. There are some talents that allow runes to regenerate faster (again, generally via a proc rather than something you can click at will to regenerate), but, in general, this means that you have to use different spells as you wait for runes to recharge.

For a typical combat example:
-Pull with Icy Touch (instant cast, 20 yd range, 1 frost rune), which does some damage and slows enemy attacks.
-Hit the enemy with Plague Strike (instant cast, 1 unholy rune and one blood rune), which does damage and inflicts a disease.
-Hit the enemy with Blood Strike (instant, 1 blood rune), which does extra damage to diseased targets.
-Now you're out of Blood runes (if a talent procs getting you more blood runes back sooner, you can spam blood strike). Depending on my mood, I might hit another Icy Touch, simply to burn a frost rune I'm not using, or perhaps a Death Strike (1 unholy, if the mob dies within 5 seconds I get healed) to get some runic power. This step is optional if you had some runic power leftover when you started the fight.
-At this point, presuming I was starting from zero, I have enough runic power to launch a Death Coil (instant cast, 40 runic power, does damage). Spam Death Coil until out of Runic power.
-Presuming you haven't taken points in Unholy, you have 2 seconds between the time when your first blood rune (from the Plague strike) regenerates and when the disease from the first Plague strike wears off. This allows you to make another blood strike. At this point, a non-elite mob is probably dead. Otherwise, you can refresh Plague Strike and start over.

What's notable about all of that is the number of spells you actually use. I don't even have all of the default skills for DK's yet, and I'm already using half again as many different spells per fight than my live characters (indeed, the mage often gets by on Frostbolt alone). This also means that hybrid specs are more attractive than they've been for other classes; you're going to need to cast some of each type of spell, so it can be worth improving a wider range of them than usual. But this post is getting a bit long, so I'll save spec discussion for another day.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lament of the Mechanostrider

Cheerydeth finally stopped messing around with tradeskills and dinged 60. As I mentioned, I've gotten pretty tired of the DK class mount's screeching noise, so I rode off to buy myself a robo-chicken. Hm... that's strange, why are the icons for the chickens all red (i.e. unusable?). I mouse over one. Requires level 60 (in white, meaning that I meet the requirement). Requires Riding 150 (in red, meaning that I don't).

Uh... but I HAVE journeyman-level riding skill, and a 100% ground mount.

And so I open the skill panel, and sure enough I have Journeyman level riding... and 1/150 skill. Looks like a bug with the DK mount quest. There's no way to raise riding skill because you're supposed to be maxed when you learn it, and there's no way to unlearn it so I can relearn it.

Bought the bird just in case (they're converting mount items into spells in your spellbook next build), but poor Cheery may be stuck on her screeching death horse until level 70.

Ah, the things I go through in beta so that you, the paying customer, don't have to in live. ;)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Inscription, v1.0

I've been a bit busy for the last two days, but I did manage to find out via the beta forums where the Inscription Tools vendor lived, and thus I was able to get a look at Inscription. Here's how the profession looks right now:

Bad news first, no glyphs :(
All characters have a "glyphs" window at the bottom of their spellbooks, but none of these exist in game as of yet. As an aside, one wonders how many recipes are going to be in this profession by the time all is said and done; at 6-7 glyph slots each (inscribers get a bonus slot), you're talking a minimum of seventy glyph recipes just to give each class enough to fill all their slots. This is an issue that Jewelcrafting faces as well; there are so many gem cuts that you're relatively unlikely to have all the ones you want for yourself, much less for your alts.

Looking at Apprentice Recipes
Apprentice-level Inscription recipes (minus any glyphs) are currently in the game. One branch of the profession appears to be about converting a specific herb (in this case silverleaf or peacebloom) into a specific ink, and then uses that ink on paper (from a vendor) to make low end buff scrolls (currently Int, Spi, and Sta). After doing this 20 times, you get to learn milling, which lets you destroy five herbs of the same type (i.e. you can mill a stack of 20 four times, a stack of 7 once, and you can't mill anything if you have 2 peacebloom and 3 silverleaf). Milling yields 2-3 Pomaces, and 0-2 edible mushrooms (the lowest end kind).

I didn't know that word either, says it's "any crushed or ground, pulpy substance" (originally specific to apples and apple cider). The interesting thing here is that the pomaces appear to be determined by the herbalism level of the herbs in question. At 1 Inscription, Silverleaf, Peacebloom, Earthroot, and Mageroyal were all Millable (while other herbs listed millable in red). These are the herbs you can pick with 50 or fewer herbalism. All of these herbs yield Alabaster Pomace. Raise your Inscription skill levels more and you can unlock another band of herbs (Briarthorn, Bruiseweed, and Kingsblood amongst others), which were generally pickable with 2nd tier herbalism. All of these yield "dusky pomace". At 125 Inscription, I'm able to mill slightly higher herbs yet, coughing up "emerald pomace". (Each level also ups the quality of the mushrooms you get, if any). The first two pomaces each have their own ink, and I'm sure the third will also when it's possible to get Inscription up that far.

This mechanic is interesting because you have relatively less control over what you herb compared to what you mine. You might make a circuit of a zone like Arathi and come out with six different flavors of herb. Well, this is not a problem with pomaces, because you can crush them all up to make whatever it was you wanted to make, as long as you got 5 of a given herb.

Interesting new mechanics
So what do you get with your pomace-made inks? Rounding out the apprentice level, you obtain:
- Scroll of Recall, which sends you back to your hearth point on a 15 minute cooldown, supposedly shared with the Shaman Astral Recall spell. (This goodie requires inscription, so no mailing it to your non-inscriber alts.)
- Tarot Cards produce a random card from the Darkmoon Rogue deck. There are five of these cards, which seem to be equally rare. Using one when you have all five in your inventory completes a Darkmoon Rogue deck, which can supposedly be turned into an NPC at the Darkmoon Faire (or certain taverns, though I have yet to encounter one) for a random level 10 green item and some exp.
- Bleached Parchment, which allows Enchanters to cast armor enchants on the paper, creating a scroll that anyone can use to enchant their own soulbound gear without the need to find an enchanter who knows a given spell. (At the 100ish level, inscribers learn to make Treated Vellum, which does the same trick for Weapon enchants.)

One thing I find striking about these goodies is that they're available to a level 5 character. They can harvest their own peacebloom/silverleaf and crank out Bleached Parchment to ship to your enchanter main. It will be interesting to see whether Blizzard leaves things this way. If they do, parchments, and thus any and all enchants used to raise enchanting skill (weapon enchants tend to be too pricey to use for skillpoints) will flood the AH. If you're not a Shaman and have literally zero interest in ever leveling any profession, the Scroll of Recall alone potentially justifies the use of a profession slot. (If you've got mining or enchanting occupying one of your slots, you can buy some peacebloom to make scrolls with you others.)

An Intriguing Start
Obviously, the profession isn't done yet. All of the currently learnable recipes in the game are green by 125 skill. One expects the 75->150 bracket to include rank 2 buff scrolls, and a different tarot deck good for higher level green rewards. And, of course, the missing Glyphs are presumably going to fill out the skillup ranks so that you don't find yourself cranking out 20-30 of each of the goodies I mentioned (which is literally all the recipes in the beta). I wasn't expecting much of this profession, but so far I'm pleasantly surprised.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Training Herbalism on a Death Knight

I just trained herbalism to 300 on my level 58 beta Death Knight. I figured I might as well post the results in case anyone finds it interesting.

I was equipped with the class 100% mount, but it didn't occur to me to spec Unholy for the 20% mount speed boost. For reference, I have leveled herbalism to 300 on the live servers three times (once when I initially leveled my character to 60, and then twice when I dropped it to disenchant old soulbound gear and then retrained it), and I also consulted leveling guides via the Wiki to sanity check my methods. (I do lean towards herbing in zones where I can pick everything, so that I don't get stuck with lots of spawns I can't loot, so I may have spent more time on green and yellow herbs than some guides recommend.) I would estimate that this took about 6 hours of played time; the actual time elapsed was significantly longer, but I did do some other errands to break the time up a bit.

Without further ado, the haul was as follows:
89 Silverleaf, 67 Peacebloom, 84 Earthroot, 29 Mageroyal, 27 Swiftthistle, 50 Briarthorn, 1 Stranglekelp, 60 Bruiseweed, 51 Wild Steelbloom, 6 Grave Moss, 55 Kingsblood, 26 Liferoot, 12 Fadeleaf, 41 Goldthorn, 28 Khadagar's Whisker, 59 Firebloom, 3 Purple Lotus, 3 Arthas Tear, 16 Sungrass, 37 Blindweed, 12 Gromsblood, 16 Golden Sansam, 15 Dreamfoil, 8 Mountain Silversage

Achievements Unlocked:
Explored Elwynn, Redridge, Stonetalon, Arathi, the Searing Gorge, the Badlands, the Swamp o' Sorrows, the Blasted Lands, and the Burning Steppes. (Also would have fully explored EPL, but the map for DK's starts fully unveiled and I appear to be missing something.) Points for five rounds of training herbalism.

Number of times I had to listen to that infernal Deathcharger mountup noise: Let's just say that I'm really looking forward to a robochicken at 60.

Advice for any other DK's who want to try this feat: Wait for level 58 so you can get to Outland and access the TBC herb trainer. (Alternately, find a mage to give you a portal sooner, having your hearth in Shattrath is useful anyway.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Random beta observations

Here are a few random things I've noticed as I run around the beta:

- The boat from Auberdine now sails for Stormwind's new harbor, allowing newbies of various Alliance races to team up without running through the Wetlands (about time, but I suppose I do feel a bit of nostalgia for making the run at level 5). The freed-up dock at Menethil Harbor now sails for Northrend.

- Speaking of Stormwind Harbor, the place is huge and gorgeous. They actually implemented a sight-seeing Griffon ride just so you can take in the sights.

- The Death Knight Deathcharger's mount-up noise has gotten really really old. In fairness, I've been leveling herbalism so that I'll be up to par by the time I get back to questing, and I've had to mount up a lot. But that supposedly unholy screeching sound is really getting to me. I was actually saddened to check and see that epic Mechanostriders require level 60 in addition to 150 riding skill (I have below 60 thanks to the DK mount quest). I don't even like Mechanostriders that much.

- I copied my Pally over with 100% full bags containing various care packages; 16-slot bags for the DK (who starts with 12-slotters), enchanting and tailoring materials for when I copy over my mage, Unidentified plant parts and other Outland rep tokens, cash, runecloth (leveling First Aid on the DK), some low end herbs, and a [Crystalforged War Axe] to ease the DK's journey into Northrend. (The last one may have been unnecessary. The first quest I was offered in the Borean Tundra offered a 100 DPS green 2-hander.) Unfortunately, if you want real info on Pallies, you're probably going to have to go to Blessing of Kings. They redid the entire seal/judgment system, in the process shaking up the talent trees, and I wasn't even sure where to start. I will definitely give the Pally a spin later on in Beta, but for now I want to focus on my DK. :)

- Achievements: The Pally copied over with 460ish Achievement points from about 60 Achievements. The DK starts with 50 or so for being level 55, and having both first aid and riding skill. I've been pleasantly surprised with how the achievements roll in. Without specifically going after Achievements, I've hit benchmarks in quests completed, falling without dying, leveling my profession, and exploration. (The exploration achievements have sub-achievements, worth 5 points per zone, and they only require you to discover landmarks that actually uncover map space, so you don't need to wonder about where the missing parts are if you've got a partially uncovered map. I unearthed four of them while herbing without really taking any detours.)

I'm sure there are random tidbits like these I'm forgetting. Is there anything you all are curious about?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Meet Cheerydeth, Beta Gnome Death Knight

My Characters: Let Me Show You Them, Part 6

Blog, meet Cheerydeth. Cheerydeth, please don't kill the blog to spawn ghouls, corpse worms, etc from it. :)

A few months back, I won a Blizzcon'07 card via a contest at Escapist Magazine. I didn't say a word about it to almost anyone for fear of jinxing it, but I was very hopeful that the "future beta code" that came with said prize was for Wrath. Well, yesterday the Blizzard beta fairy came through, and today I have a Death Knight. I've previously posted about what I'd do if I got into the beta, and I'm sticking to my guns and running with a Death Knight, even though it seems that most of the bloggers in the beta are doing the same thing. I'm looking at some free time until my new job starts up, so I've got a relatively unique opportunity to actually try out the Death Knight in its beta form.

A few early observations:

This is a beta and there are various bugs.
Case in point, the Death Knight Relic (which occupies the ranged slot, but does not actually work as a ranged weapon, much as the Pally/Shammy/Druid ranged items do) thinks it's a wand, and emerges in a big blue box of missing graphic glory when unsheathed. Other fun bugs include the Deeprun Tram running sideways instead of down its track (it literally emerges from the wall and then runs back into the same wall instead of taking you to the other city), the lack of a ramp for the boat dock in Stormwind, causing would-be visitors to Northrend to fall into the water, and some quests that have definite interface issues.

Nerf Death Knights?
I'm suspicious that blood spec DK's have a nerf coming. You get, in no particular order, a talent that regenerates runic power when you kill something, another talent that regenerates health when you kill stuff, a talent that lets you heal yourself in exchange for using a blood rune (think a Rogue's energy bar), another talent that spawns blood worms that do massive damage and heal you for that damage, another talent that lets you proc more healing, a debuff that makes enemies heal whatever target they attack, and passive regeneration from your damage aura. If that sounds like a lot of healing, well, it is. I don't think I've had to use any food/potions/bandages once I got the full assortment of talents. That's probably a bit too good. (These are things you get to experience during testing.)

Novel mechanics
The Death Knight training area is a necropolis. It's indoors, so you don't get to mount, but you get the next best thing; a runspeed buff as an early quest reward, that only functions in your base. DK's also get their 100% ground mount early (a level 55 quest), and a teleport back to their base where their trainers live. (Unfortunately, said base is a bit of a run from Light's Hope Chapel, which is a few zones away from anything useful for the Horde and way the heck on the other side of the continent for the Alliance, so plan on taking Engineering and/or saving your hearth cooldown for after you train.) There are some novel mechanics in early quests that still have some bugs to work out, but one neat thing is that the starter DK quests award talent points. I'd been wondering how they were going to handle the 45 talent points that a level 55 character gets when you don't even know what your abilities are yet, so they award them during various starter quests, such that you're up to par by the time you're released from the starter area.

Anyway, more detail to come, but in the mean time I'm off to go pick low level herbs. DK's start with 270/275 skill in all their potential weapons (thank you Blizzard!) as well as 270 First Aid skill (and get the 100% ground mount skill for free, another factor that's going to make them very very popular alts), but they don't get any advantages over anyone else with professions. I spent a solid hour combing Elwynn Forest and Redridge for low level herbs, and more herbs are to follow....

Musings on Outland post-Wrath

My Fury Warrior stormed into Outland yesterday, cashing in 150% rest exp to leapfrog levels 58-60. As always, it's a lot of fun to replace ilvl 48 random green gear with ilvl 81 quest rewards that could have occupied level 60 raid loot tables. Still, this all made me think of some quirks of leveling once Wrath goes live.

- Early quests were brutally hard
As a level 58 warrior in generally low quality gear, those first few quests were pretty tough solo. I had to play around with my usual combat strategies, and really things didn't settle down until I'd replaced both of my weapons and some of my other gear (which, thankfully, occurs quickly in Outland). Of course, part of that is a quirk to the jump from WoW to TBC; Blizzard made a general decision to make Stamina cheaper on items, and introduced a lot of additional statistics in 40-man level 60 raiding that weren't present on level 59 or lower gear. The jump to Northrend may not be so pronounced, but it still might be tough on new Outland characters post-Wrath. Especially since....

- Blizzard says levels 60-70 will be faster.
I can see the need to let new players get to the level cap (where all the players are) quickly, but this could seriously muddle the balance waters. When TBC launched, I played my mage heavily enough that he never had more than a few bubbles of rested EXP, so I actually set foot in the Netherstorm and Shadowmoon Valley before I hit level 70. My Pally, on the other hand, was only played when he had rested exp available, and he dinged 70 somewhere midway through Blade's Edge Mountains. My point being, the earlier you finish and leave Outland, the worse your gear is going to be for Northrend.

- Weapon Skill needs to die
Those quest reward green weapons I picked up early in HFP? A sword, which I hadn't used in 5 levels, and a dagger (which I hadn't used in over 30). Getting these weapon skill levels up to usable levels was not fun (and people kept jumping in to "help" with mobs, I suppose thinking that I must be in trouble given how slowly the mobs were dying). Now my axe and mace skill are lagging by two levels. I also haven't used a 2handed weapon since level 5 (i.e. 25 2H mace skill, 1 skill in all the others). Over on my Pally, I'm actually toting around all of the various 2H weapons so that I can switch to a new one every time I gain a precious skill point, in the hopes of maybe maxing them all before Wrath. This has to end. If they really wanted to keep the concept of weapon skill, the least they could do is set the floor at 5 levels or so below the player's current level, so that you'd be rusty for a few minutes but not entirely useless.

- Speaking of 2H weapons, OH HAI Titan's Grip
Fury Warriors are getting the ability to dual wield 2H weapons in the expansion, in exchange for slower attack speed. This means that it's worth having a pair of the things on hand, even if I'm not using them right now. Another interesting quirk is whether they're going to have to Unique or Unique-Equipped flag existing rep reward 2-handers. In exchange for my 360 unidentified plant parts (gotta love repeatable quests that dry up at honored), the Cenarion Expedition is willing to sell me a blue quality staff, which is likely to be the best 2H weapon in my possession at 62. The staff is not unique/unique-equipped, because you cannot dual wield staves currently (nor, in fairness, have I ever heard of paired staves being an especially common combat style). It'll be interesting to see how Blizzard handles this. There would be outcry if the talent gets pulled again (it was rumored for TBC), but I'm not sure if they've fully thought out the quirks of combining a pair of 2H Arena weapons, for example.

- Don't hide the content
One of the odd quirks of Outland was that Blizzard chose to squirrel away some level 60 content in the eastern half of Zangarmarsh.... where players who tackle content in the order they encounter it won't see it until they outleveled it. This was great for people who were in the beta or did their reading and skipped over the entire eastern half of Hellfire Peninsula on launch week, but arguably less useful. The good news is that Blizzard appears to have learned its lesson on this front, splitting out the starting content in half via two entry points to Northrend. Whether this will have other effects remains to be seen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Blizzard posts on Achievements

Since my baseless speculation post on achievements, there have been some notable blue forum posts on the topic. These answer a few of the questions surrounding the system. To summarize:

- Achievement Points are NOT Spendable.

- Achievement Point totals are PER CHARACTER, not account-wide at launch. As a result, launch achievements are limited to things that a single character can accomplish (i.e. we cannot have achievements like "level every class to 80", "complete X class-specific quest/activity", or "have every profession maxed out somewhere on your account").

- On launch day, everyone will have to go kill every boss from Van Cleef on up again if they want the points, because many achievement categories cannot be retroactive. This will mean that many people who actually completed level 60/70 raids will not be getting achievement credit for it. On the flip side, this might provide a greater incentive for "old world raiding", since you can get the points and Armory status even though you don't need or want the rep/loot.

- Based on another post on the topic, it appears that the system CAN track "have you completed X quest (or unveiled Y part of the map)?", "is your reputation with X exalted" and "do you have X item in your inventory" I.e., stuff that you cannot repeat, or that the game can specifically conclude that you must have accomplished by looking at your character on launch day. If you're considering working on achievements now so that your character's score will be nice and high on launch day, these are the areas to focus on.

Overall, the answers we've gotten so far are encouraging. It's too bad they can't stealth patch in the tracking code now, but I guess that's the downside of adding this system in to the game four years after launch.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Baseless Speculation: Achievements

So Blizzard finally had to announce the Achievement System for Wrath of the Lich King, hours before starting the beta and thus letting the cat out of the bag anyway. What is known so far is that the game will track many statistics, from the number of quests completed to the amount of the game map explored, and award players with Achievement Points for meeting any of a wide variety of goals. This is not unlike the Deed system I have repeatedly decried in LOTRO, or the "Tome of Knowledge" Mythic is planning for Warhammer Online (indeed, Syp of Waaagh! was not amused by the similarities).

What isn't clear so far is how the "achievement points" will function. Blizzard claims that the rewards for achievements will be cosmetic, and I believe them; tying gameplay benefits to a system that awards just about every style of play imaginable (pacifist exploration, solo grinding, battleground PVP, raiding, arena PVP) is a recipe for trouble. That leaves several possibilities:

- Will they be a currency used to buy cosmetic rewards? I kind of doubt this approach simply because you'd be getting the same rewards for points regardless of what activity you earned them with, and Blizzard has specifically stated that they want PVP and PVE rewards to be visually distinct this time out.
- A generic number that increases permanently as you achieve stuff, like an XBox Live score that states how much in general terms a character (or perhaps account?) has accomplished without really distinguishing how the points were earned?

- A very specific "complete X achievements, get Y reward" system like LOTRO's deeds? (Many of the battlegrounds have achievements that call for players to complete all of the other achievements for that battleground.) The result would be very specific titles/tabards/non-combat pets/etc for each and every significant achievement (perhaps in addition to the generic "score").

- How will alts be handled? My main would hypothetically be in line for several hundred retro-active points the moment he logs in based on past non-repeatable accomplishments (e.g. "obtain exalted with X faction", "get Y mounts", "complete all the quests in Zone B" etc), while most of my alts would have very limited point values. Will we have an aggregate score for all characters account-wide (encouraging progress on alts), separate scores for each character, or a mix of the two (with some account-wide achievements, e.g. "get to level 55, unlock death knights" or "get attuned for Y raid zone", something the devs have said they want to make account-wide in the future, and the rest being character specific)?

All this rambling is before we even consider the social ramifications of achievements. For example, Larisa ponders whether in-game achievements fail to reward valued out of game behavior (such as helping run your guild, being nice to others, etc). I can also imagine some of the PVP goals having a highly negative effect on the PUG battleground scene; for example, an achievement in the Eye of the Storm battleground calls for players to "Personally carry and capture the flag in Eye of the Storm". Many players may disregard broader strategy in the hopes of crossing off a few achievements from the list.

Point being, we've got some information now that the NDA is lifted, but there are many questions yet to be answered.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Comcastic Update

It turns out that I have been without internet service for over four days because there aren't enough cable drops in the box for my apartment building, and one of Comcast's own technicians unplugged us so he wouldn't have to install a splitter. I'm unclear on how the guy who came on Tuesday when we reported our cable out managed to miss the fact that our cable was out because it was unplugged.

While all this idiocy has been going on, the NDA on Wrath just dropped and the blogosphere has been flooded with information. The good news is that I get to convert the posts I was working on from baseless speculation into speculation based on actual data. The bad news is, this will take some time. But hey, at least you all have new info to entertain yourself with while I revise. ;)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Internet Connection Required to Play

Program Note: My move went great... but the internet has been out at my new apartment for four days and counting. Comcast has no idea what the problem is, has to be reminded each time we call them that there is a general outage in our area (though they keep trying to send us more technicians in case the first technician missed something specific to our building). No idea when I'll get to blog or play again.

Out of sheer morbid curiosity, does anyone have experience gaming on a DSL internet connection? I know it'll make patch day suck, but there are no other cable companies in our area, and slow internet might actually be an improvement over no internet. :(

Updates as they happen....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Call back in six to nine months?

I previously posted that MMORPG launches have been sufficiently hit or miss that it may make more sense to wait a solid six months for the devs to fix the bugs and patching in whatever else they didn't do before the end of beta. Well, there have been two breaking stories on that front this weekend.

Hellgate: MMOWNED
First of all, Scott Jennings linked a writeup on what appears to be the endgame of the Hellgate London debacle. Once upon a time, many of us expected the world of the game, but it was in such horrible shape at launch that the NDA on the beta was left in place until nearly launch day; AFTER all pre-order customers were already admitted to the beta (which is pretty silly, when you consider that pre-orders represent a large chunk of the people who will buy - or not buy in my case - the game a week later). This whole thing was so bad that it made a list of worst PC game launches ever and the folks I know who bought it were back in WoW a few weeks later.

The breaking news here is that the failure appears to have been catastrophic enough to sink the studio. Voodoo Extreme reports that the Korean financiers/publishers have taken over the game. If I understand things correctly, Flagship put the actual games themselves up as collateral for loans they now are not able to pay back, and the two main creditors have decided to cut out the middle man and try and see if they can recoup their losses. If this is how it ends, it's a sad end to a sad story.

Warhammer, now with 17-66% less Warhammer
On the same day, Mythic delivered some serious bad news to the Warhammer Online community.

The whole premise of the game is that three realms (Men, Dwarves, and Good Elves) are fighting three other realms (Evil Men, Orcs/Goblins, Evil Elves). Every action players take in the game is supposed to help their side progress towards ultimately invading and destroying the enemy city. Only problem is, four of the six cities aren't even really started yet. They're apparently so far behind schedule that, months out from their hypothetical "fall" release date, they decided to give up altogether and launch with only two of the Capitols in place (effectively reducing a three front war to a single front war with skirmishes on either side that fail to lead anywhere). To add insult to injury, they also bumped four of the game's 24 announced classes, including two of the six tanking classes (cause there are so many willing tanks in MMORPG's to begin with that this change won't have any dire effects on the community).

Even the game's staunchest advocates are taking the weekend to process what has just happened. I think that's the right call; no one can know what the final game is going to look like after these changes. I think Mythic saw what happened to Hellgate, and Age of Conan, and decided that they'd be better off trying to fix what they could instead of launching with a complete but mediocre game. The issue now is one of confidence; what else are they hiding behind that pesky NDA? What else might be placed on the chopping block when crunch time hits? How many features can be unfinished before MMORPG players won't tolerate being asked to pay full price for less then a full game? I'd argue that this puts a lot of pressure on Mythic to get their game ready enough to drop the NDA; as long as that wall of silence looms, people are going to fear that there's another Hellgate hiding behind it.

The bottom line is, here we have one heavily touted game dead in the water seven months after its launch, I've previously commented that LOTRO took an entire year to get their 1-50 leveling content finished, and now the biggest MMORPG left on the horizon sounds like it's going to have more than six months worth of postponed development work after it launches. (Remember, once they go live, they're going to have to maintain the content that's released in addition to working on the stuff they didn't finish.) At this rate, we're going to need to start waiting 9-12 months, rather than a mere six, to see what things are going to look like when the dust settles.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Packing up

I'm getting ready to move this weekend. Not the blog, or my hearthstone, etc, but actually packing up my physical stuff, getting in a truck, and driving across several states. (Aside: Updates will probably be sparse for the weekend.) In some ways, the process of packing is not unlike cleaning out a bank in an MMORPG.

- There is some stuff that I'm saving just in case (e.g. heavy winter gear I probably won't need, much like healing and ret gear on my prot Pally).
- There is some stuff that has purely sentimental value, but would be hard or impossible to replace (e.g. souvenirs from long ago sporting events, cosmetic rewards from the latest in-game holiday).
- Storage space is finite, and getting more would cost more money.
- There is stuff that I'm holding onto because it is, in principle, worth money, even though I have zero interest in spending the time/effort to sell it (e.g. an old, but technically still working, stereo, that pile of miscellaneous crafting goods).

Of course, games aren't bound to realism. In the real world I have to commute, and can't jump off tall buildings because I don't feel like taking the stairs. (I also can't cast fireballs or fight with a sword and shield.) That doesn't mean that the game must follow suit. I don't have a problem with games limiting your storage space (more storage space can be provided as a reward later, and it encourages you to clean out your bank occasionally). There are two places, though, where I think the devs could stand to do a better job:

-Stuff you actually might NEED down the line and won't be able to replace if you get rid of it.
Again, hybrids like my Pally suffer greatly for this. He has a heal set, a tank set, a spell damage set, and a ret set, and many of these are made up of quest rewards that I actually can't get back if I have to sell them.

-Tokens, Marks, and other currencies
I don't object to marks etc on principle, but WoW has gotten pretty out of hand. Off the top of my head, there are the four basic battleground marks, World PVP marks in Hellfire Peninsula, Spirit Shards in Auchidoun, three separate tokens related to Halaa (and a fourth reputation token elsewhere in the zone), and Badges of Justice. All of that is JUST the soulbound ones that are relevant to level 70, AND generally you need to save up a bunch of all of the above before you can actually spend them. There are additional currencies and tokens that you can, at least, mail to a bank alt because they aren't soulbound. Apparently this game has so many pseudo-currencies that it needs to have a coin purse to go along with the keyring.

My Fury Warrior is wrapping up in Felwood and he's got a total of five soulbound inventory slots devoted to plant salves (the beacon, the salves, and hunting/skinning/mining tokens to turn in for salves). That said, these are quick to gather, and easy to spend (i.e. the rewards don't cost 20, 30, or 100 salves). So, I'll spend what I can and destroy the rest. It could be worse (cough *Argent Dawn* cough), but it could also be a lot better.

I'm just saying, this is one of those places where the game could stand to look a bit less like real life.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Calling Technical Support

Massively just posted an interview with Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment about the forthcoming MMORPG Stargate Worlds, based on the TV series(es). For those of you who haven't watched the shows, the adventuring team typically includes a scientist and someone who can interpret the local/alien languages and cultures. Of course, being a TV show with a regular weekly cast, these irreplaceable technical experts are handed guns and expected to shoot enemies, but I digress.

(Yes, the show's premise is that the government is keeping a Stargate capable of interstellar travel hidden in an Air Force base under Cheyenne Mountain, and that this gate has been used to fight wars against the Aliens who built the pyramids. Still, I draw the credibility line at the point where the US Air Force is organizing a commando mission vital to Earth's survival, they for some reason refuse to send any more than four people, and they pick the world expert in Stargate technology and the world expert in Alien languages and culture over, I dunno, expendable people who shoot guns for a living. You'd think that I would have gotten used to this aspect of the show after 14 seasons of SG-1 and Atlantis. ;))

Anyways, the MMORPG will include Scientist and Archaeologist as playable character classes. Though they supposedly will be able to play a role in firefights (I'd sigh, but, again, this is consistent with the source material), they're also going to be needed to deal with technical challenges (the example used in the interview is a minigame to open a locked door). Non-combat character classes aren't entirely new to MMORPG's, but what happens if you're in the enemy mothership and you hit a locked door but you don't have a scientist in your party? Apparently you can call other players, who might be back at home base or otherwise not where you are at, and have them hack the door for you remotely (they even get the exp for this).

This is an intriguing concept. I won't go so far as to call it a good idea until I see it in action; the practical consequence might be that everyone has a scientist alt parked in the base so that one member of the party can quick log their alt to solve the puzzles before switching back to the actual character on the mission. There are also various social implications to consider; will players feel that this is a service being provided where in-game currency changes hands (and, if so, who gets paid, the person who gets to go through the now-open door, or the guy who got free exp sitting in town)? Will scientists and archaeologists ever get groups, or will min-maxers prefer to bring all combat specialists, secure in the knowledge that they can call in tech support later? Will there be drama in PUG's over whose alt gets the door-opening exp?

All of which brings me back to my initial comment: "intriguing". In World of Warcraft, there isn't really any way to justify having a Rogue in Ironforge tell you how to pick the lock to Blackrock Spire over the out-of-character chat channel. As a result, there are serious limits to how many locked doors there can be in the world (and all of them have to have keys that can, conveniently enough, be obtained by killing someone or doing something outside of the locked door), how many traps there can be in the dungeon etc. In a modern setting such as Stargate, communications with your home base would actually exist in game, and you could very well take a picture of the Ancient writings you need translated or hook up a laptop with a modem to the door and have someone at the base take care of that for you. (Again, technically this isn't consistent with the setting, because that expert should be following you around where they could be shot and killed, but these are allowances we make for games. ;)) As a result, Stargate Worlds can have puzzles anywhere they feel the puzzles would be required, rather than only in places where they are sure someone present can solve them.

This game has a ways to go, and I will be shocked if they make their supposed 2008 launch date (the interview hints that they know this as well), but it's interesting to hear that someone somewhere is thinking a bit outside the box.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Fast Track to Outland

or, My Characters: Let Me Show You Them, Part 5

My Fury Warrior dinged 53 today, and I realized abruptly that I'm a mere five levels away from Outland. How did that happen?

Alright, let me back up a step. In late January, some fellow George Martin fans decided to re-roll from the European server they'd previously been on to a US server to start a new raiding guild. (Two of them, Halkale and Baelor have blogs of their own.) Almost exactly five months later, Fire and Blood (the name an allusion to Martin's series "A Song of Ice and Fire") downed Mother Sharaz in the Black Temple. A solo player on no particular schedule, such as myself, doesn't really have much business being in such a high-powered guild. Fortunately, they were willing to let me keep a slow leveling alt on their roster anyway. In the World of Westeros, messages are carried by trained ravens, and thus was born Greenraven, a Tauren Fury Warrior with the darkest raven-black skin and horns WoW offers.

At the time, my old Pally (who would later become uncrushable without setting foot in a TBC instance) was just hitting Outland, and the draw of rapidly replacing all of my gear with stuff that was raid quality just over a year previously was more attractive than leveling through old world lowbie content. I burned through to the mid-20's and parked Greenraven to start earning rested exp state. Once I'd finished the uncrushable project, I picked up Greenraven and played him as my primary character for April and early May, which left him in the low 40's. Greenraven was quiet again until the previously discussed Midsummer Firefestival, which saw him leapfrog up to his current level in basically a week.

The point being, I've been very surprised at how quickly the trek to Outland has gone. My first level 60 character took me about 7 months worth of gaming time from re-roll to the final ding. This time out, if you exclude all the time where I either wasn't playing at all or was playing other characters, I'd say I'm on pace to reach level 60 in three months worth of gaming time. Some of that is greater efficiency on my part, but nowhere near enough to finish leveling in half as much time (especially when you consider that I have never previously had a Horde character above level 30, and that I was doing this on a server where I had no assets or such cheats to get a head start on bags, gear, etc).

Blizzard has really done a good job adjusting the pacing of leveling. When I finished leveling the mage to the cap (both times), I wasn't really ready to even consider making the journey again. Now, the experience is sufficiently fun that I'm seriously debating which of my two shadow-casting cloth-wearing alts to rescue from mid-20's limbo next, and I haven't even finished the current character yet. Don't get me wrong, leveling more alts isn't a complete replacement for having stuff to do on your main, but the process has been streamlined to the point where it's fun to try out new and different things. That's a win for everyone.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Avoiding Spell Pushback Solo

If you've ever played a caster class in WoW, you've learned to hate "spell pushback". A melee character can be taking massive amounts of damage, but they can always fight back (as long as they're in melee range). Hunters have an odd hybrid of mechanics in that their ranged attacks actually cut off if their foe is within melee range, but they have a pet and various snares/traps to try and keep that from happening. Casters can always cast their spells to deal damage... but taking even a single point of damage per second can slow the fastest spells to a crawl.

This matters less in groups; typically most damage can be either tanked or avoided (e.g. "get out of the fire" fight of your choice), and only a few fights actually spew out unavoidable damage on a regular enough basis to affect your casting (the fire pulses on Vael and Firemaw in BWL come to mind). PVP is a different beast entirely, where the prevalence of fast attack speeds and interrupts are going to strongly favor instant cast spells (which cannot be delayed or interrupted) when you're under attack, with more time to cast real spells while the enemy attacks your allies. So the real question is what happens when you try to solo, where you've got no one else to take that damage for you.

Since my most recent round of PTR premade testing, I've had at least some experience trying out all of the DPS caster specs in the game. (I'll admit that my knowledge is far from perfect; indeed, I'm learning on my Shadow Priest that I simply don't like the spell Mind Flay all that much because of the channel bar.) One thing that has impressed me is the wide variety of different methods designed into the game for mitigating a mechanic that is only there to begin with because the developers put it there. Here are the major methods:

Outright Resistance Via Talents
Many classes have a talent somewhere in their various trees that confers partial - usually 70% - resistance to interruption due to damage. This number is high enough to let you get off that last spell needed to finish your foe, but deliberately low enough that you won't be able to cast if you're tanking multiple mobs. There are a few exceptions that actually go to 100% immunity with talents, notably a Mage's Arcane Missiles (the spell is nigh useless solo without the talent, due to its high mana cost and periodic damage) and a druid's Entangling roots (my next point). Note that these options are not always available immediately, which means that sometimes you have to level into your mid-20's before getting the full advantage of talents. There are also some temporary abilities that offer full pushback immunity, e.g. in response to a critical hit.

Don't get hit
Obviously, you won't lose casting time to damage if you don't take damage. The Warlock accomplishes this task by sending in a pet to tank. All mages have access to Frost Nova for a brief root, and Frost spec mages get to freeze foes more often (and do more damage to them while frozen). Roots are a sufficiently important spell for Balance druids that they're allowed to gain 100% un-interruptibility (and the spell is slated to become usable indoors in Wrath). Kiting, the fine art of snaring the foe, running far enough away to cast before it gets to you, and repeating, also falls into this category, though you're going to want instant cast spells at your disposal if you're trying to cast them on the run.

Cast faster, noob!
Casting faster is more commonly thought of as a DPS buff (more spells in the same amount of time), but it also means less total time before the spell goes off. Talents, spell haste rating, and some procs/abilities/trinkets help in this department. Faster casting can also mean picking spells with shorter cast times. A mage's 1.5s Scorch cast becomes nigh un-interruptible when combined with 70% immunity from fire talents (which are even available to non-fire mages, such as my unorthodox Water Elemental/Master of Elements solo build).

DOT and forget
If you can't cast faster, the other approach is to take your time. Many damage over time spells can be cast instantly, at the cost of taking time to deal their full amount of damage. There are also some spells that appear to be designed as openers, notably a Mage's Pyroblast or a Priest's Holy Fire, that have lengthy cast times but apply a DOT effect in addition to an initial hit. If you're lucky, you can do almost your full amount of damage while minimizing time spent "casting".

Take it on the chin
Well, if you must cast spells that are not pushback resistant and you cannot keep your foes out of melee range, your only option is to try and eat the damage somehow. The iconic form of damage absorption is a priest's Power Word: Shield, though Frost mages get a self-only clone of the ability.

This last part is where I was having problems on my shadow priest, as I was trying too hard to use Mind Flay (which people say is great), and channeled spells really suffer if you don't have some way not to lose casting time to damage since you're paying the full mana cost up front. I simply hadn't needed to keep PW:S up at low levels (my wand DPS is good enough that I'd rather stop casting and benefit fully from Spirit Tap), which was fine when I was just losing casting time but less fine when I started losing mana to mind flay. Sure enough, I altered my strategy a bit to avoid relying on mind flay in situations where I was taking damage with PW:S down, and suddenly I was having a lot less trouble playing the priest.

Like I said at the top, I'm stuck by the variety of all the different caster specs/strategies. It can't have been easy to design each of the classes so their abilities diverged like this, but Blizzard managed it somehow.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lessons from PTR Premades

I'm always a fan of the PTR's, because I love the chance to experiment with different specs (though this has been less of a problem of late since daily quest gold pays for a lot of respecs), but I'm especially a fan of PTR premades. Not because I like to go zerg enemy capitol cities, but because premades allow me to try different character classes before spending a lot of time to level them.

A few months ago, without the benefit of active PTR's, I posted a speculative rundown of all the classes I have yet to level and my interest in trying them out in the future. I basically talked myself into trying out the shadow priest, and I proceeded to level one to 20 on my retail server. In the mean time, the PTR's came up. A week and a half later, I was finally able to liberate a set of premades from the copy queue, and use them to test my rankings. (There were five classes on my list and I only had four premades available, but I'd previously tested both soloing specs of pre-made Shaman, so I copied the other four classes.)

Lo and behold, I didn't like the level 70 Shadow Priest much. This puzzled me, since, again, I was happily leveling one just the other day. Meanwhile, I enjoyed both stealth classes substantially more than I expected to, and I'm even having some fun messing around with Warlock builds (My Warlock alt has been indefinitely parked at level 23 because I didn't find it fun).

What happened?

1. Theorycraft is not experience
Obviously, there's no real substitute for actually playing a character class. I just got Mind Flay on my priest, and I'm at a point in the game where I don't really need to worry about casting it more than once per fight. Level 70 mobs require multiple casts, which forces me to deal with not losing the channeling bar due to damage.

2. Abilities are gained one-at-a-time for a reason
One of the big issues I had with the premade shadow priest was a sudden abundance of new abilities. Half the spells I'm using for soloing at level 20 aren't available in shadowform, and there are some new ones that I've suddenly been handed all at once. There are some interesting implications for Death Knights here, as DK's will presumably have a similar number of abilities to other classes at level 80, but will have to obtain them over a mere 25 levels.

2a. Because you don't have all your abilities yet, you can't make a fully informed decision on classes at low levels
Case in point, the druid. You don't even GET cat form until level 20, and you don't get the really good abilities for Cat form until even later (notably Pounce at level 36 and Mangle with a whopping 41 points in Feral combat, obtainable no sooner than level 50).

The Warlock is another example; I'd rather play WITHOUT a pet tanking for me, and that option is available via Demonic Sacrifice... but realistically you're going to want to be able to drain tank before you try this, and that means being level 45-51 (depending on whether you feel that Siphon Life is necessary for the combo, Destruction+Demonic Sacrifice builds want even higher levels). Level 50 being notable because, by this point, you could have to the stupefying power of the Felguard (I couldn't freaking pull aggro off the thing on a premade decked out in S4 arena gear!) instead of a gimmicky petless pet class build.

Point being, this is potentially a LONG way to have to level a character before you find out what it's "really" like. One wonders if there's a good way to reconcile these two points.

3. Does the gear make the class?
In addition to the time lag before you get all your abilities, choice of gear matters to many classes. The pre-made druids copy over with Resto gear, 250 badges, and basically unlimited arena points to get the non-rating-required arena armor (3 pieces of S3, one piece of S4, a relic, and an off-hand for casters). I tested my DPS once before I hit the arena vendor and once afterwards. Needless to say, there's a big difference in feral DPS there. A player who leveled up one way (for example, a newly level 20 druid wearing caster gear) might conclude that their new shape-shift forms sucked (as I did, about four years ago while WoW was still in beta). By the same token, these premades are far far better geared than any alts of mine would be. If I actually do roll up any of the above, I won't be killing nearly so quickly.

4. Premades have a value beyond testing
Obviously, I'm not really looking for bugs here. If I find any, great, I will certainly report them, but things will be pretty bad if there's some bug that pops up in between the city of Shattrath and the Barrier Hill Ogres right outside town (which I have always used as convenient spec testing target practice). That said, my PTR experiences are causing me to reconsider some classes I wasn't planning on leveling, and clearly I'm not the only person interested (since it took a week for the queues to even allow me to REQUEST my premades, and another five days for them to appear). There's definitely demand here. I'm not suggesting that the game should have persistent premade servers (huge portions of the playerbase would never level anything ever again if given the option, while MANY players with level 70 characters voluntarily level alts the way things are now), but one wonders if there is something that can be done about this.

I could go on, but I think my hearthstones have cooled down while writing this, which means I can do another round of spec testing. ;)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

What would you do in the Wrath Beta?

Today came the news that signups for the Wrath beta are live. This is a sign that they're getting ready for the open beta kickoff, which I suspect will probably happen in the next month. All of which begs some interesting questions, which I've turned into this blog's first ever poll: What would you do if you got into the Wrath Beta?

Some people don't want to know about the new content so they will be surprised by more of it when it finally comes out. Others wouldn't have the time to check it out if they wanted to. But let's say that you don't mind spoilers (or, at least, are willing to put up with them in exchange for potentially amusing screenshots of unfinished content). What do you do when you get into the beta?

This is what happens when Blizzard forgets to set the "face mask turns off facial hair" button.

One obvious choice is to copy your existing characters into the beta. This way, you're playing a familiar, often well-geared, character, and diving right into the most eagerly anticipated content. You're also going to be best equipped to give Blizzard feedback on the content you're testing, though realistically it seems that they're not taking major feedback by the time they open the testing up to even a closed sample of the public. The downside, of course, is that your characters will have to repeat the whole process when the expansion goes live. That isn't to say that you won't get to experience quirky bugs (e.g. the time Blizzard accidentally replaced the texture of the Fel Reaver with a bear; yes, an actual, regular-sized bear), but there's only going to be so much content to see.

There's no unfinished quest content here, really. (Screenshot taken in mid-November 2006, shortly after Blizzard announced the apparently much-needed TBC delay.)

But this expansion, like TBC before it, also offers an alternative. There's a new class, one that the vast majority of the WoW playerbase doesn't have experience with. The downside to taking a death knight for a spin is the starting level; you'll be rolling through fifteen levels of existing content before you even get to Northrend, and, if you actually LIKE your Deathknight, you'll be doing it all again when the expansion launches. Then again, being one of the earliest level 80 DK's in the world is an experience that you only get one shot at.

Personally, I think I'll be going the DK route if I get into the Wrath beta. I will, of course, copy over my existing level 70's and check out the new talents, but the opportunity to test the DK is unique enough that I wouldn't want to miss it. I'm not really doing anything on the live servers that can't wait for a few months, and I'm sure I'll be able to come up with some way to shake things up when it comes time to take my real characters into Northrend. Besides, you never know what's going to happen on the beta servers.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

No DK's Before Wrath

Sometime during Blizzard's WWI splash screen countdown, someone started a rumor that the ice-covered splash screen was a sign that Blizzard was going to allow Death Knights to be playable before the expansion launched. Somehow, people are still posting this idiocy, even after it turned out that the splash screen was for something completely different.

Let's completely ignore the logistical challenges involved in determining who has already pre-purchased an expansion that is not yet out.

And the fact that, if you're charging money and releasing some of the content, claiming that you haven't actually released the expansion early with only one of the major features is mere semantics.

And the possibility that players would be disappointed with the Death Knight (either because they dislike it, or because of its effect on other aspects of the game) and cancel their recurring subscriptions rather than await the remainder of the expansion's launch.

And the complete turmoil that adding a new class to the level 70 endgame at this late date would cause (including an ability that physically moves enemy targets to the DK, and possibly major changes to the Crushing Blows mechanic across the board in order to allow for tanking without a shield). Doubly so if we're also releasing the new talents in this hypothetical patch.

And the fact that, presented with the opportunity to allow low level BE's and Draenei when TBC was delayed, Blizzard did not do so.

Blizzard wants level 55 Death Knights on launch day so that some of the population will voluntarily go try a DK instead of swarming to Northrend.

Don't take my word for it, WoW's lead Producer told Tobold:
"When we actually launch Wrath of the Lich King you'll be faced with a choice of whether to create a Death Knight and start that process, or to take your main and level it up to level 80."

Can anyone tell me why, oh why, this sorry excuse for a rumor isn't dead yet?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Firefest: Best Holiday Ever.

When the Midsummer Fire Festival originally rolled out in 2006, I had no time to try it. At the time, I was actually attempting to raid on my mage, which meant 2-3 mandatory 40-man raids a week, and 1-2 optional 20-man raids (which I needed to attend in order to gear up, as I could not make my guild's scheduled weekend 40-man farm content nights). I looked at the patch notes, determined that I didn't NEED any of the rewards for raiding, and didn't bother to try it out. Last year's festival fell during the six months when I was playing LOTRO instead of WoW after my old raiding guild fell apart. As a result, the revamped 2008 edition was my first experience with the holiday.

In my view, the Festival is the best holiday Blizzard has designed yet, and should be the model for holiday content going forward.

Something For Everyone
One thing that makes this holiday stand out is the quality of rewards. Most holidays reward some temporary buffs or purely cosmetic items. The Fire Festival has these too. In addition, however, the Festival boasts:
- An event boss, Lord Ahune, who has meaningful level 70 drops, including an exclusive enchant and alternate versions of the 25-badge epic heroic cloaks.
- Several daily quests that reward a fair amount of gold at level 70, and about 5% of your next level at lower levels. My Warrior (who started the Festival at 45 and ends it at 51) is parked in town while I wait for his rest exp bar to refill, and I've been able to collect his daily quest exp in about 5-10 minutes of /played time per day.
- Yet more free experience from the fire pole dance (+10% mob kill exp) and from the various bonfire quests (a big part of my warrior's rapid exp gain). Characters who have exploring or questing to do can collect this exp while questing and unlocking flight paths they're going to need anyway, and get free cosmetic rewards for the blossoms.
- Characters who are actually leveling in more remote zones (where their flames will remain lit) also stand to benefit from the substantial combat buffs acquired from the bonfires; my level 14 priest was doing 30 damage with a smite, but a whopping 140 damage from the bonfire proc.
- The [Mantle of the Fire Festival], an otherwise cosmetic reward item that has the distinction of being, as far as I'm aware, the only wearable shoulder armor for characters below level 14.
Caution: Wearing a pair of open flames on your shoulders is not recommended unless your head is somehow immune to fire.

Seasonal Flair
So is the Fire Festival good just because of the loot? I would say its value goes beyond that, though the game can certainly use additional opportunities for non-raid/arena players to get access to gear that breaks the ilvl 115 rare barrier, and Blizzard benefits from anything that encourages players to level alts. The reason why all this loot is there in the first place is to encourage players to participate in - and thus notice - the seasonal content. This makes the seasonal content more valuable to the developers than more conventional content in two ways:

- First off, they can afford to include better rewards and not worry about the possibility of players gaining five levels in four days, because it's only a temporary event.

- Second, and perhaps more importantly, having the holiday have bigger effects (including a real, live in-game plot) on the world makes it feel like an event. Quests in WoW are figuratively a dime a dozen; WoWHead currently lists over 6000 of them in its databases. Adding a couple more on a permanent basis really wouldn't be noticed much. We'd all play the new quests (or not, if the rewards suck), and that would be that. The Fire Festival really feels like something different in the middle of a potentially very long stretch (the late March launch of patch 2.4 through late October or beyond for the launch of Wrath) with not much different. All this, and it does so in a way that isn't entirely useless to players who are working on the high end raid/arena game, but still includes alt-a-holics and solo players who don't always get a shot at new content.

In short, the revised Fire Festival is a relatively rare case where everyone playing wins, and an unusually time-efficient use of the developers' limited development time. I'm not saying there's no place for purely cosmetic holidays (though some folks in my old raiding guild took entirely too much pleasure in inflicting Peedlefeet upon their guildmates ;)), but I hope there are more events like this one in WoW's future.