Cascading dominoes in World of Warcraft

One thing that I’ve noticed in MMOs is that when you have a whole bunch of projects and goals that you’re more or less pursuing simultaneously, progress tends to come in waves. There I’ll be, just plugging away for days or even weeks, when all of the sudden everything starts coming up Milhouse. Major goals are achieved, I get great loot, I ding levels — I have some really good nights.

That’s exactly what’s been happening with me in World of Warcraft over the past couple of weeks.

When I came back to the game last month, it felt like I was buried under a mountain of tasks and goals. There were tons of storylines and quest chains to complete, lots of reputation tracks to pursue, and so on. I whittled it down to one thing at a time and kept plugging away, and slowly but surely inched the needle up to completion on all of them.

It felt like dominoes cascading on the nights where I’d log in and be completing two or three major achievements while finding a few great pieces of gear that inched my item score north of 400. I finished all of the 8.0 and 8.1 storylines, I got revered with all of the Alliance rep factions from those patches, I pushed on to get exalted so that I could access the Kul Tiran and Dark Iron Dwarf allied races, I leveled my heart up to 55, I started on Naz, and I even plugged away at a handful of island expeditions every week which paid out in a few cute pets.

All in all, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting somewhere. I know that I still have a ways to go to unlock flying, but it feels doable and there’s plenty of adventures to go on as I explore these new zones. I keep toying with the idea of rolling up a new alt with one of the allied races I unlocked, but I want to stick it out until I get flying for the account-wide unlock before I do that. Plus, with Classic coming in a couple of weeks, I don’t want to get too spread out.

I did spend an hour sightseeing around Darkmoon Faire the other day, which was a hoot. I remember when they first put that in the game way back in vanilla. It was practically nothing, just a few tents and some vendors, but since then it has really grown into a tremendous monthly event.

The new rollercoaster was a blast, although the buff it gives is functionally the same as the carousel while it takes you longer to ride. I kind of wish that the rep buffs could stack or that there was something else to do on the ride, but I can’t deny that having a giant rollercoaster in the middle of the faire improves the visuals while creating a stronger carnival vibe.

And while I haven’t been to Mechagon yet, I do have some thoughts on Nazjatar. First, I’m pretty impressed that Blizz pumped out two new zones with the patch. That’s a lot of new scenery and content, and while some players blazed through it quickly, I think it could last people like me a good long while.

Naz as a zone, however, isn’t the best. Conceptually it’s pretty interesting — pulling off a Moses and parting the sea to create a dry patch of land to explore on the sea bed — but functionally it’s frustrating. It’s just hard to go anywhere in the zone due to obstructions and elevation changes. I’m sure it’ll be much easier with flying, but without it, there’s a lot of winding paths to be had. It definitely makes me miss the much more open and lovely zones of Kul Tiras. I’ll do what I need to do there, but after I’m done, I can’t see coming back to this one.

Blizzard’s two-prong strategy with World of Warcraft Classic

Welcome to the month of World of Warcraft Classic. It was inevitable. And it’s going to be pretty weird and wild.

Even though the release of WoW Classic is still a couple of weeks off, players are grabbing their name reservations this week and ramping up plans for what they’ll roll and do in those first few days (probably deal with server issues, overcrowding, and slow progress, more like than not). Discussion has been brewing about how successful this server type might be and what Blizzard will do with it in the long run, but I think that one of the most fascinating angles to look at is how the studio has set up a win-win (or, in the words of Michael G. Scott, “win-win-win”) scenario with WoW Classic.

In my eyes, Blizzard is setting up a Xanatos Gambit, where it’s not choosing a path to victory, but laying a situation where all paths lead to victory in one way or another. It might seem foolish setting itself up as its own direct competition, but look at it from the studio’s standpoint:

1. Whichever version of WoW you play, you’re still subscribing and paying into Blizzard.

2. If you are bored or dissatisfied with World of Warcraft, then you’ll have an escape with WoW Classic.

3. If WoW Classic ends up boring or dissatisfying you, you may develop a deeper appreciation of retail WoW (as Misdirections posted, “I almost suspect one of the reasons Blizz is doing Classic at all is to bring home to players how much the game has improved since those days.”).

4. With two live MMOs going, Blizzard gets double the media coverage for relatively small sustained effort.

5. Plus it generates goodwill for players who have been asking for a vanilla server, wrests control away from those profit-siphoning emulators, and helps build up steam for WoW’s 15th anniversary celebrations later this year.

Sure, there are ways WoW Classic may backfire, but it’s really not that risky of a proposition and holds a lot more win scenarios than not.

I can see my attention flitting back and forth between the two versions. Initially I was lukewarm about WoW Classic, then I got super-excited around the beta, and now I’m cooling off a bit as my interest rises in retail WoW. But the point is that it’s harder to burn out completely on two different versions and experiences of a game than just one, which will serve to keep people like me in Blizzard’s ecosystem for even longer.

That’s pretty clever.

Do racial variants add much value to MMOs?

Last week we got the word that Lord of the Rings Online has a new race in the pipeline — the Stout Axe Dwarves (which, as someone noted on Twitter, can pretty much refer to all of Lord of the Rings’ Dwarves). We know that this race will have a new starting area, be a little taller than the current Dwarves in the game, and offer a female option (a first for LOTRO — at least from the player’s side). We can presume that they will have different racials and animations.

Almost as soon as this race was announced, I started to hear familiar rumblings from some quarters asking the question of whether this actually added value to the game. Is it just a cheap cash grab? The easiest way to add a race in a game hemmed in by lore? And where oh where are my playable Ents already?

Playable racial variants seem to be a minor trend among MMOs lately. DDO has several of them (such as Deep Gnome and Aasimar Scourge), LOTRO brought in the High Elves back in 2017, and World of Warcraft of course has been going whole-hog with allied races ever since the pre-Battle for Azeroth patch.

When a new race isn’t completely new at all, but rather a reskin or an old race spruced up and given a few new minor abilities, is that really enough to warrant an inclusion? It’s not a flashpoint for controversy, but I’ve seen people taking sides on this. Some love them, and some see them as only slightly better than pointless.

Yes, they may be cash grabs and easy ways to get “new” races in the game from a development perspective, but I do think that racial variants offer value to MMORPGs — because they matter to some players. Making characters in MMOs are all about choice and personal expression, who you want to “be” in this virtual world. The more options, the better. I think it’s as simple as that. If it makes some people really happy to have them, then what skin off your nose is it to have it in the game, even if you don’t play it? There are lots of races I don’t play, but (other than Elves) I don’t begrudge their inclusion.

In World of Warcraft, I’ve considered allied races as a rather tantalizing carrot worth chasing, and I’ve gotten a rush over the past few weeks as I’ve unlocked two new ones (Kul Tiran Humans and Dark Iron Dwarves) as well as a minor Night Elf variant. I might well never play any of them, but there’s a satisfying feeling to having them as a future option if I want to try one out. And any excuse to roll up an alt is a win in my book!

As for the Stout Axe Dwarves, I’m betting that LOTRO is going to do the same thing as it did with Mordor and include them in the pricier editions of this fall’s expansion as well as sell them a la carté. That means we won’t be seeing as many of them in the game, but the allure of having a female dwarf is going to send some players in a happy frenzy to roll one up. It also helps to keep this MMO in the spotlight, and that’s definitely a good thing for 2019.

Battle for Azeroth should have brought out the old gods from the start

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been powering through the rest of World of Warcraft’s 8.0 and 8.1 storylines. This has made me reflect on the narrative landscape of Battle for Azeroth, which has become one of the more contentious areas of the game from the pre-expansion patch onward.

Generally — generally — the thought is that the story isn’t really doing it for most folk and has been a letdown from the previous expansions. It’s not terrible, per se, just not quite what everyone seemed to have wanted.

General Strawman established there, I don’t know if I agree with that overall. I mean, Warcraft’s story has often been… fine with moments of greatness. Not the best of the genre, but certainly not terrible. But with the increased focus on cutscenes and interactive tales, WoW has pushed storytelling to the forefront of the past couple of expansions, and this has somewhat backfired with BfA.

Personally, I kind of like what I got for the main storylines — just not the direction. I outright love how Blizzard is using those in-game cutscenes to tell a majority of the heavier story bits, and I keep seeing all of these clever questing techniques to draw the player into the experience. The voice acting is well-done and many of the moments have been touching, tragic, or terrific. I especially liked Jaina’s troubled trip home and her struggles to reconcile to a divided family.

The problem as I see it is that most of World of Warcraft’s fanbase wasn’t buying the whole “Horde vs. Alliance superfight” conflict that was suddenly thrust upon us in the wake of Legion. It felt forced and rushed and without proper motivation. Players had really grown accustomed to both factions becoming grudging allies, and I think that we have been there, done that with Horde vs. Alliance in vanilla and Pandaria especially.

Having Sylvanas go nuts and burn down the almighty elf tree was really extreme and took her character into a two-dimensional stock villain field almost immediately. Horde players felt isolated from their own side. Alliance players didn’t really feel like they had a grudge match going with the other side. As I said, it was forced.

And it didn’t help that everyone pretty much knew that all of this was an elaborate feint on the part of Blizzard to mask the real threat of the expansion, which was the rise of the old gods. Toying with players’ emotions and loyalties over something that ultimately doesn’t matter just to bide time until the real story began is, any way you look at it, cheap.

Personally, I think that Blizzard should have brought out the old gods from Patch 8.0 and kept ramping things up from there. Let players have their loyalties and allegiances instead of trying to make them fight each other over things that don’t matter while giving them a united threat to overcome (perhaps in two different ways).

I guess it’s moot. We have another patch or two until BFA wraps up, and I suspect that when BlizzCon is over this year, people will be mentally past this storyline anyway. One of the rumors going around is that the next expansion will see at least one old god trashing Azeroth as we knew it (Cataclysm 2.0?) and reshaping the relationships between races and factions. Hopefully that’ll be the story that we deserved in the first place.

Making up for lost time in World of Warcraft

So if the starter pistol for an expansion sends the Day One crowd down the street on their two-year marathon, then by the end of the first hour I’m always hopelessly behind the pack. I’m like that well-intentioned but out-of-shape dude who thinks he can run a marathon just because he thinks that this’ll be different than all the other times in the past.

Now imagine how far behind I am after taking an eight-plus month break. I’m still on the first stretch while the pack is, oh, on the other side of the planet. When I logged back in and started pecking away at my quest log, I realized I was doing mere zone quests that I hadn’t finished up before leaving last time. That’s how far away I am from catching up.

But here’s the thing about World of Warcraft: Patches and expansions come at such a slow rate that even the tortoise can get to the finish line with plenty of time to spare. So I don’t worry so much about everyone being in the Patch 8.2 zones. Instead, I just focused on one goal at a time, which initially was about cleaning up my quest log and doing world quests for gear upgrades and rep.

That actually worked surprisingly well. I went from feeling overwhelmed and sort of lost on Day One of my return to getting back into a good shape by Day Four. My ilevel went from an embarrassingly low number to 392. Even better, I formulated a plan of attack to start working on the numerous reps that I needed for allied races and flying.

This tortoise is going places, baby.

I still find myself absurdly delighted over some of the visuals from the Alliance zones in this expansion. Blizzard’s art team is always so good at creating striking sights out of vivid colors and exaggerated designs.

One thing I haven’t done much of in this expansion is transmog. I’m still wearing all of my Legion outfits (I’m not a huge fan of most of the BFA gear visuals I’ve seen so far). I did find a new guild which promised to do some transmog hunting, so I’m down for that.

I need this bumblebee mount. I don’t think I’ll be doing much more in the way of island expeditions, but I do like the thought of engaging in activities that pay out in “fun” rewards like toys, pets, and mounts. I heard that the new zones have tons of these, so I’m excited to see it.

In other news, the Elf Tree is still burning. Lots of ash coming off of that one, so don’t breathe for the next four months if you want to keep your lungs.

Oh! So WoW is always making me laugh, and there was a short chain of quests that highly amused me as of late. It was a few tall-talking sailors each spinning some sort of over-the-top yarn, and I got to play through all of them. No great rewards or anything, but they were pretty amusing, from the giant octopus fight to the great land shark battle.

Is World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth really that bad?

There’s a period after when you return after a long break to an MMO you used to love that I call “Rediscovery.” During this phase, you’re not only trying to remember what the heck you were up to and how the game’s changed during your absence, you also rediscover many of the elements you used to love, became quite accustomed to, and subsequently stopped noticing. It’s why I advocate taking a break from MMOs from time to time, if just to “refresh” that perspective.

So over the last week or two, I’ve been going through a nice period of rediscovery for World of Warcraft, and more specifically, Battle for Azeroth. I had left last October after burning out a couple months into the new expansion, feeling both overwhelmed at the grind and underwhelmed by the direction and features. I think I needed that, as I had been playing more or less nonstop for two-and-a-half years before that point.

And with a somewhat negative exit alongside of many others who were very vocal with expressing their displeasure over the expansion, it kind of got cemented into my mind that BFA is terrible. Coming back, I can’t say that’s the case, and while it’s trendy to bash BFA these days, I’m also seeing that it’s not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be. It’s no Cataclysm, and it’s not suffering the content drought of Draenor, that’s for sure.

I’m not here to defend BFA, because it certainly does have flaws that need addressing, whether in this xpack or the next. But I do see that there is a lot to be enjoyed — the visuals, the story (yeah, I do like how Blizzard is telling tales these days), multiple paths to obtaining desirable rewards, the music, sleek combat, and so on. Patch 8.2 seems to be a net positive for the game, with a couple of additional zones, mount equipment, and flying. I think we might get one more mid- or large-sized content update past this, but chances are that this is about it for BFA. Blizzard’s probably super-eager to turn the page and start on a new expansion in the hopes of righting some of the wrongs here and getting the faithful back.

Still, I’m having a good time, and that feels weird since so many people like saying how awful all this is. I think it’s a matter of comparison — it’s not as good as Legion in a lot of ways, not as popular as Wrath, not as innovative as… pretty much any expansion before it. But every time I turn the corner to see a gorgeous sunset or a house interior with vastly better lighting and decor than we ever got back in vanilla, I find myself softening in my attitude. When I can pick a couple small goals for a night and pursue them, whether they be quest lines, working on a particular rep, or just trying to get a gear upgrade, I appreciate the options.

So is BFA all that bad? Has it gotten better but the cool kids have moved on? I don’t know, but for the time being, this is where I’m planting my flag.

WoW: Huh… wha… where am I?

What is this madness? World of Warcraft and a new patch and Syp playing again? Steel yourself, July, because it’s only going to get more crazy from here.

The last time I was seriously playing — and blogging — about regular WoW was all the way back in October 2018. Really? Huh. Thought it was a lot more recent than that, but now that I look back, it makes sense. After about two months into Battle for Azeroth (and two-and-a-half years of constant play prior) I was just not feeling it and drifted away. BFA was fine, but it wasn’t as gripping or spectacular as a lot of us were hoping, and there were other things vying for my attention.

So why back now? That’s probably due to a few factors: enough “fallow time” has gone by to rejuvenate interest, WoW Classic has me thinking about the game more, and the new patch seems to be somewhat well received. Plus I still had several more months of subscription time on my account, and I always hate the feeling of sub time going to waste. Felt like a good time to wade back in, in any case.

Getting back in didn’t prove to be that easy. With two major content patches and one in-betweener since the last time I played, a lot of the game had moved on while my character was frozen still. In fact, I hadn’t even fully finished up all of the regular zone quests, nevermind my war campaign and all of the newer stuff. I hadn’t been closely following the new systems and changes (heck, I had no idea what an essence was). And with a chock-full quest log and no clear direction, that first day back felt woozy and disorienting.

Right. I’m a pro. I know how to do this. The first step was to clear away the mess and concentrate on one goal while I got to relearn systems and figure out what was what. So I untracked every quest in my log save for one or two zone quests in an area and then started plugging away at those. After a while, I dusted off my memory of world quests and worked on the dailies and whatever ones looked like they had attractive loot or reputation. I know that I need tons and tons of reputation in all directions for flying and allied unlocks.

At least the pattern of questing felt familiar and gave me forward momentum. I was going to clear out my quest log before going to the new zones and get a handle on what I needed to do on a regular basis to make progress toward these meta-goals.

In a happy coincidence, on the third day back I bumped into my old guild (which I had been kicked out of due to inactivity). I was happily invited back in only to discover that three months ago the guild had suffered an exodus of a lot of players due to unspecified drama and was now in the rebuilding phase. That’s fine, I’m not picky. I just want some friends to chat with and occasionally join for dungeon runs.

All in all, this feels like a good move back for this month in gaming. A little out of left field, sure, but I see a parallel with LOTRO, DDO, and ESO — all four games offer a lot of recently released content to explore, and that’s more than enough to power me through the summer and beyond.