Friday, January 22, 2010

The Illusion of Parity

Last week, Rohan of Blessing of Kings wrote a piece extolling the virtues of Blizzard’s ‘limited attempts’ on Putricide. She (He? I ‘m not sure, and I apologize if you read this and I'm wrong!) feels that the weekly limit helps separate the various grades of guilds, and also perhaps leads to more focus and determination during attempts. Limited attempts would likely help my own guild; we frequently come through with the clutch kill after much head-banging when our raid leader declares ‘one more try, then we’re going to call it.”

I’m really not 100% sure why Blizzard went with the limited attempts (first seen with Grand Crusader) or staggered boss/wing releases as we see now with Icecrown. Cynics would argue that it’s to keep the Royalty and Aristocrat guilds (from another Rohan post) from mowing through the entire thing in a couple of weeks, thus keeping people tied into the game a little bit longer. No doubt, had Blizzard released Icecrown Citadel in its entirety, we would have had several guilds reporting Arthas kills before Christmas, with significant progress made on hardmodes. Idle hands is the Devil’s workshop, they say; players who aren’t engaged may drift off to other games or, worse yet, engage in despicable acts of trade chat brutality (Oh, right, they're doing that anyway. Never mind). Blizzard may not mind Trade chat, but they certainly don't want defectors, so it seems a good policy from that standpoint.

Less cynically, one might argue that the staggered release of Icecrown is allowing Blizzard to look at how guilds are faring currently, and fine-tuning the next wing before release. If they see too many people ripping through the Plaguewerks they can ramp up the Crimson Halls. I’d like to think this is part of Blizzard’s idea, but perhaps I'm just being naive.

One thing I do like about the staggered release (or did like, until I got a hard, cold dose of reality) is the Illusion of Parity created by the staggered release schedule. My guild fits squarely into the gentry in Rohan’s hierarchy; I’m well aware of our place, and I try not to compare it with the top guilds on my realm. Yet when Icecrown's Lower Spire was released, I couldn't help but feel that everyone was even. It didn't matter that we hadn't done Grand Crusader: As far as Icecrown was concerned, we were in the same place as everyone else. It was strangely thrilling.

The Illusion persisted even after we failed to clear the Lower Citadel the first week, then the second, then the third. Saurfang held us up, yet the Illusion held: Even though others had mastered Saurfang, nodoby could get in those doors. Muradin was waiting just for us!

I was extremely agitated the night before the Plaguewerks release. My guild had all all night to take down Saurfang. I wanted to kill him in the worst way, so that we could maintain the Illusion. Killing him, getting the clear before the next wing, would be some kind of validation of the Illusion; it would show that we had a place at the table with the upper crust of the server. I wanted it. Bad.

We failed. I was sorely disappointed. We were now behind.

The world didn't end, however. We went back in two nights later and cleared the entire lower citadel, including the obnoxious, dead orc. We were in the Plaguewerks. WE were once again even. The Illusion was restored.

This week the Illusion has been completely torn away. Last week we finally took down Festergut, only to get stymied by Rotface (coordination is always problematic for us). We went in this week full of optimism, and were inexplicably and completely owned by Marrowgar. It was one of those nights where it felt like everyone forgot how to play. Even the Raid Leader's call of ‘one last chance then we call it’ failed to work its magic that night.

And here then is the downside of the Illusion of Parity: in my heart I knew that we weren't near the equal of the Royalty guilds, yet I allowed myself to believe on some level that we were. On some level I guess I want us to be on that level; I allowed my heart to convince my mind of something my mind knew wasn't true. Marrowgar gave me a good Saber Lash for my silliness, and I'll never fall for that again. Unless, of course, we should manage to catch up during the wait for the Frostwing Halls.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Firsts and Seconds

Remember your first kiss? First date? First car? People love to celebrate firsts. Firsts are significant moments in our lives, and when they are long in the past we still like to look back and remember them, and hash them over with others.

In WoW firsts are also memorable and significant, particularly in the world of raiding. The first kill of a boss is often met with whoops over vent, gratses from guild chat, and commemorative screenshots showing the raid posed with the dead boss at their feet. It’s even more meaningful when it has taken you many attempts spread out over weeks or even months to kill that boss. The thrill of the kill is often accompanied by an overwhelming sense of relief: Relief that the hard work finally paid off.

Yet as important as that first kill is I believe the the most important kill is actually the Second Kill. Unfortunately, the second kill is rarely memorable: I remember our first Nalorakk kill not only because it was the first, but because both tanks dropped dead with the troll-bear under 10% health. We took him down because a quick-thinking Rogue managed to jump in for a spectacular bit of ‘Evasion Tanking’ while everyone left standing threw everything they had at him (including yours truly – ‘Hammer of Wrath’, FTW!). The second one? Sorry, that’s just not in my memory banks at the moment. I do however remember our second Kologarn kill. The only reason I actually remember it is because, after several weeks of being stymied by the VERY LARGE fella, we finally defeated him. Just prior to encountering him the following week, one of our guildies commented that he thought ‘it was a fluke’ that we even beat him the first time. We one-shotted him for our second kill, and proved to ourselves that it was no fluke.

More recently, we took down Deathbringer Saurfang for the first time on Monday. It was our 23rd attempt over multiple weeks when we finally beat him. We cheered, we took screenshots, the works. Privately I worried: it felt to me like we had gotten lucky in that he cast his one Mark of the Fallen Champion on one of our tanks. How easy it was to heal through that. I wondered if we would be so fortunate next time, and if we would be able to handle it. Two days later it seemed as if our first kill was indeed a fluke. We got a Mark on a non-tank much earlier than expected, and it ultimately lead to yet another loss to the ‘Lone Orc’. However, we regrouped and proceeded to execute a perfect kill the next attempt, without Saurfang casting a Mark at all. It seemed my concerns were unfounded after all.

And herein lies the importance of the Second Kill: The Second Kill validates the First Kill, proving that it was no fluke or result of good fortune, that you have the abilities to do it again. Anyone can get lucky once, but the Second Kill shows that you’ve mastered the boss, not the other way around. So next time you find yourself sitting around the fire with a tankard of ale and an audience, show a little love for the Second Kill. Besides, you’ve probably told the tale of the First Kill a hundred times already.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Great Tank/Healer Shortage of 2010

Gordon of We Fly Spitfires set off a bit of a blogostorm last week in his guest post on Matticus (Tanks and Healers Should Get The Biggest Rewards), an inciteful if not necessarily insightful post placing tanks and healers above the dps classes. Had he posted this on the O-Boards he surely would have been branded a troll (actually, at least one commenter did); as it was, he’s received some 90+ comments in 3 days, a direct response from Spinks on her blog, a kinda-sorta response from Klepsacovic (although he did say his post was written before the flap), and Larisa, to name a few. Most of the bloggers and commenters on the original post agree that special rewards for tanks and healers would be wrong, but I actually didn’t start writing this in response to the question-that-wasn't-really-a-question posed by Gordon. Instead, I wanted to address the root cause of the issue: the tank/healer shortage, and the reason for it.

Prior to implementing the Cross-realm LFG Blizzard had already taken steps to address the tank/healer shortage by introducing dual specs with the release of the Ulduar patch. This was designed as a way to encourage people to branch out into other talent trees without having to constantly pay for respeccing, reglyphing, regemming, etc. In raids it would allow a dps to not have to sit out a particularly healer-intensive boss fight, thus missing out on glory, loot and badges. Outside of the raid it allowed healers and tanks to switch over to actually do decent damage while questing or doing dailies. And it was surely hoped that it would alleviate some of the bottleneck that existed when trying to find tanks and healers for heroics or to fill that last spot in the raid. While dual-specs helped somewhat, the fact that Blizzard had to resort to Cross-realm LFG indicates the problem still exists. I see two reason for the tank/healer shortage: Numbers, and Mindset.

First the numbers. There are 10 classes available in WoW. Four of those classes can tank; four can heal. Four are ‘Pure’ dps classes. Looking at class breakdown based on census data from Warcraftrealms, about 47% play a tank-capable class. There’s fewer playing heal-capable classes: 39%. Based on this data, healers in particular would seem to be the choke point. However, there are no ‘pure’ tank or healer classes; just because 47% of the survey group plays a tank class doesn’t mean 47% of the players are tanks. Since the census data doesn’t currently show us who plays what role, we have to look at the different specs and make an admittedly big assumption: that there’s a roughly even breakdown of players by spec.

10 classes, 32 specs (druids get credit for 2 dps specs; Death Knights get credit for 2 dps specs and 2 tank specs*). If we look now at tanking specs, there are 5: Prot Warriors and Pallies; Bear Druids; Frost and Blood Death Knights. For healers we also have 5: Holy Paladins and Priests; Discipline Priests; and Resto Druids and Shaman. 10 tanking and healing specs vs. 22 damage-dealing specs: Is it any wonder there’s a tank and healer shortage? The options for tanking and healing are far more limited than for damage dealing, not just in terms of pure numbers of available specs, but also in play styles: DPS can be right up at the feet (well, rear end) of bosses or standing at a distance. Healers and tanks are always at the back or front, respectively.

The second issue causing the shortage is mindset. When dual-specs first came out, I spent a month hemming and hawing over what I would do. Finally I told my guild that I was going to take Retribution as my second spec (Holy is number 1) and I began picking up Ret gear on off-spec rolls, though I continued to defer to any other Paladin in the raid that might have even the remotest interest in it. I kept dragging my feet on actually getting the dual spec however, until the eve of patch 3.2. That night I finally forked over the gold for….a second Holy spec. I told myself then that I really needed time to experiment with the new ‘Bubble Spec’, but the truth is once I started using that spec, there was no going back, and no real reason not to change one spec over to Retribution, except for one thing: I’m a healer. It's what I do. I don’t like to dps on my Paladin, and I don’t like tanking. Having two or even three specs isn’t going to make me change that, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way: you’re either a healer or a tank, or you’re not. Yes, there are players who are perfectly capable of excelling at any role, but I suspect most players are like me: we have a role that we like to fill with our toon, and we stick to it as much as possible. Unless Blizzard radically changes the nature of the game I don’t think you’ll see any great change in the numbers, and we’ll always have a disparity of numbers.

Finally, I have to wonder if this problem is even that great a problem at all. Maybe the current tank/healer shortage of 2010 is being caused by heightened expectations – we’ve all been suckered into believing Blizzard’s slick advertising pitch: ‘Use our New-And-Improved LFG System and make those irritating wait times *snap* disappear!’ In short, we have been sold on a belief that we wouldn’t have to wait, and this belief was upheld in the first two weeks when everybody and his uncle was running random heroics in an effort to get emblems, cheesy pets, and easy achievements. Now that the novelty has worn off, the wait times have gone up, and our patience has gone down. In a response to a comment on her post, Spinks said “…there is still an issue there of supply and demand, and keeping the customer base happy with regular instance runs rather than having to wait 15-30 mins in the queue.” I seem to recall having to hang around Dalaran sometimes for 30-40 minutes, spamming trade and general, while constantly refreshing the LFG/LFM window once the guild and friends’ list was exhausted. The current system is much more a ‘fire and forget’ and go back to whatever you were doing until the Ready Check pops up. Seems to me much of the problem is in our own minds and not with the system or lack of tanks and healers. But then again, so many of the problems in the world of the World of Warcraft are of our own making.

*I admit to knowing very little about Death Knights and how they work, as mine is sitting gathering dust in Hellfire Peninsula at level 60. I might have actually shortchanged them a tanking and dps spec.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dungeon Blues

Well, the new LFG system has been out for just about a month now, and the reviews are…decidedly mixed. It seemed that when the system came out, everyone jumped into LFG/random and loved it. Within a few days, heck, maybe even hours for some – people were gathering Emblems of Frost and were piling Emblems of Triumph at an unprecedented rate, and shelling them out again in an orgy of spending entirely appropriate for the season. Even the World’s Worst Paladin (who is in my guild, and no, it’s not me) decked himself out in 4 pieces of T9 in short order, though I doubt it will help him that much. The concerns about the potential clash of server cultures and the fears that people would use the anonymity of cross-server groups for evil seemed to be largely unfounded. Bosses went down at ridiculous rates, the emblems poured in The world was new again, and everyone was happy (unless you had the misfortune to get Oculus multiple times).

As the month wore on the cracks began appearing in the foundation of the new system. It started up with complaints in guild chat – ‘OMG, this group is FAIL’; ‘This tank can’t hold aggro’, ‘We wiped on the first pull so I dropped’. Perhaps the worst was my GM (Retired) who was Vote-Kicked from a PuG on his druid. Why? They didn’t like the way he was healing. Nobody died and there were no wipes to that point, they just didn’t like something that he was doing (disclaimer: he hadn’t played his Druid in a while and was admittedly rusty, but he’s Ulduar-geared and a good player). Meanwhile, forums and blogs began to fill up with horror stories: DPS running off and pulling mobs from all over; tanks who pay no attention to anybody; bossy healers teleporting out of dungeons mid-fight for slights real or imagined; tanks showing up in the wrong spec, with the wrong gear, and under the defense cap; players of all classes and roles who seem to show zero aptitude for the game, and either an inability or unwillingness to learn. Meanwhile, the tolerance level of skilled players for anyone not equally good sinks lower and lower, and we hear more stories of people being openly scornful of those who are not up to those standards.

It may not be as bad as it sounds. After all there are plenty of times my guildies make no comments whatsoever about the PuGs they’re in (and they pug a lot. There’s plenty who log on and jump right into LFG without ever checking to see if anyone in guild wants to join them, but that’s a rant for another time), and bloggers are more likely to blog about memorable experiences – which typically result from bad experiences. For myself, the few Pugs I’ve run have been brisk, business-like affairs: efficient, but with all the warmth of a politician’s handshake. I have no horror storiers of my own, but then again I’ve pugged with exactly 8 random people since the new LFG launched (yes, I do run random heroics, but I stick to guildies and friends).

Yet the ‘Dungeon Blues’ continues to be sung, and I think Starets Sayas may have put his finger on the cause in a comment he left on a Matticus post:

"When the dungeon finder first started, evidently there were a lot of powerful toons signing up and it was great. But evidently a lot of those toons are back to guild runs or something. Because the last few days, it seems like I’m being asked to carry more and more groups. I’m not always up to the task."

Read more:

WoW players love new content, new achievements and pets. When 3.3 hit it brought a lot of players out of the woodwork; a large number of these were quality players who had cleared the old content and had little reason to play. Now they had a reason to play again, and these players flooded the LFG system. Within a few weeks however, things started to settle down again. I suspect that many of these players farmed the heck out of the emblems of triumph initially and used them to pick up whatever they needed from those vendors. At this point, top-end players are looking exclusively to the Icecrown raids and Emblem of Frost vendors for upgrades, not heroics, and they’ve already got their Perky Pugs. The loss of these players leaves a smaller pool with a higher concentration of ‘lesser’ players – this explains to me why we’re seeing more complaints of bad play. In the initial weeks, you were more likely to find yourself in with ‘better’ players because there were more of them in the pool.

While this can explain the declining quality of play reported in Pugs, it does not explain the declining quality of people. There’s no correlation between playing skills and people skills. It’s this decline that worries me more – I can handle being in a group with a bad players, but I can’t tolerate people who are rude, inconsiderate or downright mean. Perhaps it’s nothing unusual. Perhaps it’s just that the new LFG system has given the Trade Chat Heroes of the realms something to do besides the Murloc game. Maybe they’ll eventually get their fill of emblems and go back to doing what they do best and we’ll hear less about them. As for me, I’ll continue to avoid them by running randoms with my guild or my friends. I’ll still get my emblems, and I won’t have to put up with loot ninjas, name calling, or vote kicking. And if I never get a Perky Pug, who cares? I’ve still got Sleepy Willy.