Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We Should Be Able to Talk

This piece is about the discussion---or lack thereof---in the wake of the Blizzard Watch article "Does the Warcraft movie have a problem with women?" If you're not interested, turn back now!

We've had a rough history, we humans. A perpetually out-of-balance history, when it comes to our relations. Those with power, and those without. Those with wealth, and those without. Those with rights, and those without. We are the child of that history. The love, pain, heartache, triumphs, struggles and losses of the past---those are all imprinted into our collective DNA whether we're aware of it as individuals or not.

We're drawn to see the world as we imagine it to be---and much of that is based on our own personal experiences. But one human's experience doesn't do justice to how things really are---it can't. Our time spent here is over in a beat, and much of that experience for most people takes place in a relatively tiny bubble. It's not easy to grasp our diversity, and the sheer will and sacrifice it took humanity to get where it is. We especially have it easy in this time of interconnectedness and relative prosperity---I'm assuming, since you're a gamer and reading this. And because of our technological advances, we're in a better position to both understand and talk about our history with one another than we ever have been.

The thoughts above came to mind after reading Elizabeth Harper's Blizzard Watch article titled "Does the Warcraft movie have a problem with women?" and spending time reading the comments it began to generate. The article was well-constructed and it was obvious Harper spent a good deal of time putting it together. Unsurprisingly, I cannot say the same about the majority of responses, both on-site and in my social media circle.

It doesn't pay to refute those who say that the article's main purpose was website hits; they've adopted a belief that fits their worldview. It doesn't pay to refute folks who say "I've never seen a problem," because they've decided based on their experience there isn't a problem at all---or at least, if the problem doesn't affect the perceived majority, it isn't one. It doesn't pay to refute the hyperbolic, name-callers, and slippery-slopers who seem to fear something they can't articulate on. I'm mostly done with that battle, but I'm never going to leave where I stand up in the air.

How women are represented in-game? That's on Blizzard. How women are treated in-game? That's mostly on us, the players. It's not surprising that women up until recently have often filled the roles of love interests, fodder for other characters or sex symbols. That's largely the role they've occupied in the entertainment industry in the past. But as we grow as a planet and learn more about one another and our history, stratified gender roles continue to crumble. Slowly, but surely, this will be reflected in our culture. It is changing, but that journey has not ended. It can take time to notice a problem in what has always been considered the norm.

If there's one thing we know about the past, it's that we get a lot of shit wrong. It's up to future generations to fix it, like we saw recently with same-sex marriage. Let's not forget less than 100 years ago, women didn't even have the right to vote. Up until the 60s, and arguably much later, women were expected to be homemakers---an ugly notion that still lives on today and seen all too often. Where do you think "go make me a sandwich" comes from?

Sexism is a problem in World of Warcraft both on the company side and the player side, but that's largely because they're both products of a sexist society.

The fact that the entire Warcraft universe was created by mostly men doesn't bother me; I don't see it as a good or a bad thing. It just is. However, I can also understand how the mechanisms of sexism in our society manifest themselves, unconsciously even, in the creations of a group of college-aged guys. While Blizzard are less creators and innovators, those guys were simply going off of what had been imprinted on them by their experiences in life---life within an advanced, industrialized male-dominated society. It would be astounding if sexism wasn't noticeable in WoW given its origins.

Things won't change overnight. It'd be naive to think they would. But they also won't be changed if they are ignored. If there are customers who would like to feel better represented and welcomed in even something as seemingly insignificant as a game world, they should be free to express their feelings. When it comes to players and how they treat one another in game? I can't solve that one, only do my part. But it's on all of us.

Sexism in Warcraft may not be noticeable to you, or it may not be a problem for you. But we still need to be willing to talk about this stuff with calm, open minds. Without hyperbole and baseless accusations. And that takes effort. Especially when it takes empathy and possibly requires us to look at a not-so-flattering aspect of ourselves. Our society. Our norms. But I can't convince anyone to act or see it any differently. I just think we should be able to talk.

I'm going to keep doing my own thing, with the hope that those hindering debate---consciously or not---will one day come to better understanding.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Done Reading Between the Lines

It's no secret right now that there are quite a number of vocal players who aren't happy with Blizzard, mostly centered around with what's happening---or not happening---with World of Warcraft. Even if you discount the anecdotes from folks e-explaining why they've quit, why they plan to, or why they're currently unhappy but still playing, you're left with the three million very real people who chose not to continue their subscription from Q1 to Q2....for whatever reason.

We can't assign a blanket reason for why those players left. Not even a general "dissatisfaction with the game" works, as surely among those three million are folks who left due to time constraints, finances, or an entirely different reason unrelated to their view of the game. At the same time, a lot of people have given reasons to why they're not happy. Everything from lack of content, to the implementation of garrisons, the removal (and now reintroduction) of flight, the current state of PvP, the lack of representation in-game, lack of a story, confusing lore...I'm surely missing a bunch.

Right now, it's quite easy to survey the forums and social media and see throngs of unhappy players. If you are an unhappy player, you may look around and feel a strange tickle. Sure, maybe you're not happy about the further monetization of the player base while someone else left over the flying issue, but the common ground is that you're both unhappy. Even if your qualms revolve around completely different issues, there are many others who are unhappy, so in some sense, you must be justified in your observations.

Inevitably, since we can't point to any one single wrong thing about the game, it's assumed there must be something wrong with the game as a whole. And if there's something wrong with the core of the game, let's extend that to mean that there's something wrong with the core of the company. Simple logic, right?

All of a sudden you have Warcraft players who have become hyper-focused on Blizzard Entertainment, analyzing and criticizing every micro-move they make that doesn't address their main concern. Players who've not once pulled up a chair became outraged at the fact Blizzard will offer purchasable skins for their Hearthstone class of choice. World of Warcraft Q&A pushed back in favor of keeping Heroes of the Storm in the spotlight? God damn it, Blizzard. The COO leaves which obviously confirms things are going to shit? God damn it, Blizzard. Trying to suck me into your other titles through cross-promotional in-game items? God. Damn. It. Blizzard.

God damn it, Blizzard. Fix ___________________________.

Blizzard has noticeably started to spend more resources promoting their other titles, and I feel this is what many Warcraft players struggle with. I think it's quite telling that most of the criticisms I've seen about the company as a whole came from the Warcraft forums, or from Warcraft players on social media. For a decade now, Warcraft players have been Blizzard's darling children, and I guess it can be jarring when suddenly it feels like you're not. It's like the five-year-old who throws a tantrum after he learns that mommy is pregnant and he might not enjoy her sole attention. Even if we want to pretend that Warcraft is still Blizzard's baby, it's not the reality.

The reality, in fact, might be that Warcraft to Blizzard is like that 19-year-old son/daughter who you love to death but wish would just move out of the house, or at least go to college---but you don't have the heart to kick out. I'm not saying Blizzard is trying to kill Warcraft, but that maybe they're trying to make it the game they want it to be for the time we're in---and they're in---now. And I'd have to imagine that's an awfully tall order when you've got pushback at every single decision from one of the most passionate player bases on the planet.

Perhaps Blizzard have ascertained the MMO of yesterday is no longer sustainable in today's market. I think it's easily argued they have ample evidence in that vein. No one can truly know whether they're phasing out WoW, reinventing WoW, or just doing their best---other than what they themselves tell us. But it's a battle they'll never win, as they're continuing the develop a game they never thought they'd still be developing while being fought tooth and nail at every turn. Like, they're making this game because we still play it. They have a right to maintain their vision for it, and we have the right to vote with our wallets.

If this is what the demise of a video game company looks like...someone better tell Blizzard. But it might be difficult for them to take you seriously. In the greater picture, one cannot discount the tens of millions of players around the globe who are currently enjoying Blizzard games, many of whom don't know who Paul Sams is (and wouldn't care), haven't read a quarterly earnings report, and didn't even know one could fly in World of Warcraft.

Even if I'm not the most cynical of folks when it comes to Blizzard's intentions and business practices, I'm finished with the paranoid speculation. I refuse to look at every Heroes skin, store mount, Hearthstone sale, and content patch with a sinister bent, wondering what angle Blizzard is trying to fuck me from this time. Maybe that's putting on the blinders full-force, but in truth I've never once felt that way about Blizzard. 

I'm well-versed in conspiracy theories. I know how Confirmation Bias operates. I understand how physically and mentally exhausting it is believing the government is actively hiding the reality of an extra-terrestrial agenda.* I've done my research there, but it's something entirely different with Blizzard. I don't need research, because I have personal experience: ten years of engaging entertainment. When I look at others' dissatisfaction, and what reads they get from Blizzard's action or inaction, it sometimes feels like we're playing two different games. Sometimes you just need to agree to see things differently, and part ways.

This is me parting ways. This is me accepting what Blizzard is offering for the time being. I'm still playing, and still enjoying it. Maybe it doesn't hold me for several hours per night like it used to, but maybe that's not a bad thing. At the end of the day, when I ask myself "Am I having fun?"

The answer is still yes. Seems foolish for anyone to try to convince themselves otherwise---whatever their answer may be.

*I'm not saying they're not hiding one. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

What Heroes of the Storm Gets Right

Img: Heroes
I'm one of those jerks who was granted access to Heroes of the Storm early on in the technical alpha. Now that Heroes is officially live, and having played hundreds of games solo and with friends throughout the alpha and beta, I thought I might explore why Heroes of the Storm is the perfect MOBA for me. If you can identify with some of my reasoning, it may be the perfect MOBA for you---even if you've not played one before.

Prior to Heroes, my MOBA experience was with League of Legends. There I reached summoner level 23 (aka still noob) before I decided I wasn't enjoying the game enough to continue playing. With Heroes, Blizzard offers their own approach to gameplay elements which up til this point have become signatures of MOBAs. It may be too much of a departure for purists, and this may be partly behind the reason Blizzard would like us to refer to the game as a "hero brawler" instead of a MOBA.

Still, as with what we saw with World of Warcraft over ten years ago, and Hearthstone more recently, this is what Blizzard does best. I feel their iteration of a MOBA gets it right.

Match Length

The shortest match I've played in Heroes of the Storm ran about ten minutes, while the longest match ran about thirty-five minutes. Quite a variance, I know! In contrast, the shortest League of Legends match I've played lasted around twenty minutes, while the longest dragged on for over an hour---an even larger variance! But it's not the difference between the longest and the shortest matches that attracts me, but rather the average length of each match. Generally, one can complete two matches in Heroes of the Storm in the time it'd take to complete one game in League of Legends. And this is important to me as it relates to the perception of risk vs. reward.

Risk in this case signals time-invested. Reward signals any number of things: a win, XP gain, fun had, etc. Being able to play two games in a forty-minute period vs. one increases the overall sense of reward. Even if you aren't winning, you're gaining experience, both in the virtual and literal sense. Matches in Heroes rarely feel like they're dragging along, even if your team is clearly behind, because they tend to be over so quickly. You generally have a decent idea where the teams stand in relation to one another by the twelve minute mark of the match, though, just because one team is far ahead doesn't mean the match is over.

Opportunities for Redemption

Heroes of the Storm requires teams to make intelligent choices throughout the game. Even the team who's three levels ahead of their opponent late into the game isn't guaranteed a win. Some might not see this as fair, but I think it facilitates exciting gameplay---or at least the potential for it---from match start until one of the team's cores is finally destroyed. One of the reasons League of Legends ceased appealing to me was the feeling of utter futility and uselessness when you and your teammates fell too far behind to win, yet the match carried on for another twenty-five minutes.

In Heroes of the Storm, the game's truly not over til it's over.

I've been on both sides of matches where one team has an 18 vs. 15 level differential only to have the leading team get cocky and blow the match. There's a built-in catch-up mechanism to help a team lagging far behind: they will gain experience at a slightly faster rate based on the level differential to prevent them from getting too far behind---which is nice, if not too dramatic. I've also been on both sides of matches where the winning team finished five levels ahead of their opponents, so the catch-up mechanism only goes so far.

With the increased length of resurrection timers after late-game deaths and the increased power of Heroes at high levels, a well-coordinated wipe (killing all players on the opposing squad) by the trailing team is enough to steal away a victory. Granted, it's something easier said than done.  

Emphasis on Teamwork

In League of Legends, there's a lot of emphasis on laning, which essentially means a player adheres to a single lane on the map to clear out minions in order to gain experience. The concept of last hitting---delivering the killing blow on a minion or champion--- is a big deal as that's how players gain experience and level up throughout the match.

While the concept of laning still exists in Heroes of the Storm, less emphasis is placed upon it. Experience is still gained from killing minions and champions, but the experience is shared across the team. In a sense, early game laning can be even more important in Heroes, as that's where teams can achieve an early level jump on their opponents if they're covering the map well. With players not gaining an individual bonus from kills (save for a few champions that can choose a talent to benefit from this), they're encouraged to be more map-aware and respond to the actions of the opposing team and their teammates alike.

Because of this, team fights tend to happen earlier and more often compared to League of Legends, something that makes the game feel fast-paced right out of the gates.

Random Maps with Objectives

To date, there are seven different Heroes of the Storm maps with another slated to be released soon. Unlike League of Legends, players don't choose the map they'll play on---it's randomly decided by the game. While everyone surely has their favorite and least-favorite maps, the variety staves off monotony I often felt while playing League of Legends.

Additionally, the difference between the maps goes far beyond window dressing. Each map has a unique, game-changing objective that must be responded to by both teams to secure victory; each of these objectives feels distinct compared to the others. As you can imagine with setup, overall team strategies from map to map wildly vary which keeps the games exciting and fresh, even when sitting down for a two-hour play session.

Champion Design

Easy to learn, difficult to master is something we hear Blizzard cite from time to time, and they've delivered here. Blizzard's champions are designed to fill one of four specific roles: Warrior (tank), Assassin, Support (healer), and Specialist. Blizzard clearly lists each role every champion fills on the character select screen, making it quite simple to choose a character you want to play, or better yet, assume a role your team needs.

While Blizzard very briefly played around with the idea of an in-game item shop to Heroes, they quickly decided it wasn't what they wanted. In reality, it adds a certain level of complexity to the game; a level of complexity that essentially requires some pre-game research to discern the most advantageous item builds for a given character. Another way to describe that level of complexity? A barrier to entry.

In Heroes, you don't spend talent points as the game progresses to unlock and increase the power of champion abilities as in League of Legends. Instead champions start the game with their three base abilities (sometimes a fourth, depending on the hero) and will select a Heroic Ability upon reaching team level 10. Every three levels players are given a talent choice that often results in augmenting or improving a certain ability. Generally, these are fairly simple to understand and select on the fly. Still, knowledge of the champion's overall toolkit and its options as it relates to the team's needs can provide opportunities to create an advantage---and can involve some research. While I do believe this setup runs the risk of creating cookie-cutter "best" builds, I feel the most competitive teams out there will choose their talents in a way that benefits the whole group.


It always feels like you're making progress in Heroes of the Storm. Even when you lose matches. Like League of Legends, players gain experience towards leveling up their account as well as towards leveling individual champions. There's a constant stream of unlocked rewards for the account up to max level, and there's a constant stream of unlocked rewards for leveling up individual champions as well.

On top of that, Heroes offers daily quests that reward gold. Most of these are along the lines of "Play 3 Games as a Warcraft Hero" or "Play 3 Games as a Support Character." The best part of the two examples I've offered is the word play. The game does feature one daily quest that requires players to win 3 games, but the gold reward is greater as compensation for the challenge. A new daily quest is offered each day, and players are allowed to have up to 3 quests in their log at any given time. Super cool, because if you're not playing every day, you can still reap some serious gold rewards. And I should probably mention that gold is how players can purchase new Heroes without spending real money.

Are you playing? How's it been thus far?

Friday, May 29, 2015

5 Things I Hope Blizzard Learns From Warlords

In a recent post I mentioned how I'd rediscovered the "spark" that first pulled me deeply into World of Warcraft after struggling this expansion with finding the motivation to do much outside of my garrison. However, I admitted that even with my focus realigned, Warlords of Draenor will likely go down as my least-favorite expansion. Here are five things I hope Blizzard takes away from the Warlords of Draenor experience.

Value of Scenarios
I won't say I missed them dearly, but scenarios in Mists of Pandaria provided an excellent opportunity at max level for small-group content. Scenarios were especially attractive for damage-dealers and those with limited amounts of play time. Queues were always short; it was sometimes possible to run multiple scenarios in the time it would take for a damage-dealer to find a dungeon party.

Utility of Alternate Currency
We saw some of this with Apexis Crystals, but the effect was dramatically scaled back compared to previous expansions. Instead of earning this currency through dungeons, scenarios and multiple quests, crystals were a reward for completing a single daily quest given in the garrison or by mindlessly grinding mobs. I think it would've been advantageous for Blizzard to have included Apexis Crystals as a dungeon reward, and by extension, the non-existent scenarios. Not only would it allow players to fill some holes in their gearing strategy, but it extends relevancy of group content at max-level. Like dungeons.

Return to Factional Daily Options
Many people agree that Blizzard went too far with daily quest options in Mists of Pandaria. You want a rep grind? We'll put a rep grind behind a rep grind! What we have in Warlords of Draenor seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the outcry over too many dailies. To me, it's clear the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Give us some other way to gain factional rep other than Apexis dailies, garrison missives, and mindless mob slaughter.

Benefit of Farmable, Rarer Mobs
This might be a personal peeve, but the way rare mobs were handled in Warlords of Draenor was a bit of a letdown. Kill it once, you're guaranteed whatever drop(s) the mob has on their loot table, and you're done. Previously, there were a number of items that could drop off of a rare mob, one of which was usually some sort of unique item, like a vanity pet, toy, or a crazy-cool leveling elixir. Maybe players cursed by RNGeesus have had enough, but seeking out those rare or missing items gave me another reason to get out into world after I'd exhausted the leveling content.

Additionally, Draenor is incredibly overpopulated with rares. It's kind of like how if you hand out epic gear to everyone and their uncle it ceases feeling like epic gear. In addition to not guaranteeing drops on every kill, rare mobs should be fewer and far between.

Need for Better Travel at Max Level
I nearly titled this section "The Value of [Redacted] at Max Level" but then thought better of it. I'm swallowing the Kool-aid, Blizzard, and trusting that you've got something in store here. Fact of the matter is pretty much since the Burning Crusade players have taken earning flight as a reward for reaching max-, or near-max level. With the removal of flight there needs to be a better system of travel to wherever players want to go in current content. Waystones, portals, I don't care. Give us something more efficient than "improved" flight paths.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

An Ode to Ice Crown Citadel

Where to begin.

I suppose I'll start with what's prompted this post. My own Circuit of Disappointment last night turned out to be not so disappointing. It was on the third character to run through for the week, on the 60th kill overall, that the Lich King dropped Invincible's Reins.

The weather's been rather cooperative locally as of late, so with doors and windows open I chose to spare my neighbors as well as patrons of the gas station across the street from hearing my mad exultation. Instead, I bolted around the (thankfully) empty house, whisper-screaming as forcefully as I could manage. After a couple of minutes I returned to my keyboard to share the news with guildies. And Twitter.

As the elation faded, I became acutely aware of another feeling creeping in. Well, maybe not an entire feeling. But definitely a tinge of sadness knowing I no longer had need to visit Ice Crown Citadel again. Ever. No more "Bad neeeeeeeeews, dad-dy!" or "Suffer mortals, as your pathetic magic BETRAYEEYAYEEES you!" No more hearing Saurfang weep over the body of his deceased son. Truly, "no more lives."

I'm fully aware why I feel this way, and why I've attached so much sentiment to the raid zone. August 2009 saw the introduction of Patch 3.2 and the Argent Tournament. In the months prior, I'd spent quite a bit of time on the guild recruitment forums looking for a group that fit my philosophy and schedule. My raiding experience up to that point? Next to none, but I knew it was something I wanted to do. I dipped my toes into Karazhan with pugs near the end of the Burning Crusade, and that was the sort of challenge I was after.

So it was just before the Argent Tournament dropped that I settled in with a guild on US-Bonechewer. At the time they were working their way through Ulduar. They weren't finished by the time we saw Patch 3.2, but made the transition to the Trial of the Crusader nonetheless. It was at this point I was granted a spot on the raid roster, a 10-player outfit at the time.

In truth, the Trial of the Crusader was unremarkable to me. I was just glad I'd found a group before Ice Crown Citadel's release. I had my sights on Arthas.

His was a story arc I loved, even if it's a familiar one. Players actually got to see Arthas' point-of-no-return when they participated in the Culling of Stratholme dungeon. We met a person who saw their own intentions as pure when in truth they were being driven by madness. And what you truly realized was just how devastating Arthas could've been as a force for good. How devastating he was as a force of evil. He was a Son of Azeroth we had to put down ourselves.

Which is why I'm not ashamed to admit I bawled a bit when the Lich King fell for us, just a week before the pre-Cataclysm systems patch. The weight of the previous months, the many hours, boss kills, and wipes, all lifted. It is over.

That kill fuels me to this day. I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure I saw a raiding environment each week. I went from a committed raider who did his job, but rarely talked in voice chat to raid organizer and leader over the course of Cataclysm. Today, I run a successful 1-night raid group. Not to brag, but our progression rate would put that ICC group to shame.

So thank you, ICC. For pulling me in, and not letting me go. For enticing me to see what else is out there. For setting me on the path that's lead me to where I am today. For teaching me that, indeed, video games can move you to tears.

I'm sure going to miss you.