The alpha testing for World of Warcraft‘s next expansion rolls on, with the vague hope that we might actually have a beta tag by the end of March. I mean, we almost have all of the specs in the testing now, and so all that remains is for the follower system that isn’t like Garrisons all over again we swear to actually be implemented before we have a test that is functionally feature-mostly-complete. That would theoretically mean beta, although we haven’t been given any actual roadmap beyond “by September.”
Scheduling and relevant terminology discussion notwithstanding, there’s more stuff to talk about with the alpha, and in a way having an extra couple of weeks provides more interesting information to chew on. As the live game sits in the midst of yet another content lull, let’s examine the testing, the philosophies that we know to be in place, and what all of this means for the longer-term health and design of the game.
Well, folks, I promised you that this week I would talk about my further impressions playing through the Legion alpha. But then I spied a rather fascinating post about the state of the game and the changes being wrought upon World of Warcraft (with thanks to fellow writer Justin and his excellent blog roundup), and it wound up more or less writing a column for me in simultaneous response, agreement, dissension, and clarification. Which is, to be fair, all stuff that comes into play with the Legion alpha, so it’s sort of similar.
If you’re not buying that, don’t worry; we’ll have nothing but the alpha to talk about for a long while. I’ll revisit the topic.
It’s not exactly controversial to say that WoW has changed a lot over the years of its existence, seeing as that’s a statement of fact rather than opinion. I’ve watched one of my favorite specs go from punchline to raid support to heavy DPS to PvP powerhouse to mediocre DPS, and each time it has gotten just a little bit weirder. So why do things need to change so much? Is it helpful to the game? Do we really have any promise that this is the time everything stays the same?
Today’s column is about the time I tackled my father and stormed out of the house. It is also about World of Warcraft. It covers a lot of ground, that’s my point.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve had loads of positive things to say about World of Warcraft over the past year or so that I’ve been writing this column. I’ve had some pretty negative things to say for a variety of reasons. And I’ve been asked, on occasion, why in the world I’m writing about a game that I “hate.”
Of course, the problem with that question is that it presupposes that I hate the game, that the only possible reason I could have for saying negative things about World of Warcraft is if I just straight-up hate the title and everything it stands for. And that segues nicely into a wider discussion that applies to WoW as well as discussing things in general. Into an examination of what it means to care about something. And yes, it segues into tackling my father.
Tuesday brought along a big surprise for me in the form of access to the Legion alpha test. I had pretty much resigned myself to living off of datamined information, so you can imagine that this came as something of a shock. Since then, I’ve spent as much time as possible (which is probably less than you think) working my way through the alpha, killing various enemies, playing with artifact weapons, and loving the heck out of Demon Hunter.
Spoiler warning: I like Demon Hunters. Who’d have guessed? Not me, that’s for sure.
I have not, unfortunately, had time to do a deep dive into everything available in the current test build. I’ll be doing my best to do exactly that over the days, weeks, and months to come, so look forward to that, but I don’t have it all ready to go right this moment. That having been said, and considering that this is the big thing to talk about for World of Warcraft fans at the moment… what’s it like?
The Legion alpha is back, and it is still an alpha. And I want to to stress, not for the first time, that I am not applying that label to it. I am not declaring that it is an alpha unilaterally or discussing ambiguous terminology. The test is being called an alpha by Blizzard, has been repeatedly referred to as an alpha, and in every way, shape, and form has been flagged as an alpha. Whether or not it should be labeled as an alpha isn’t the point.
Meanwhile, last year’s promises were for a beta by the end of the year.
Long-time readers know that I’m not really a fan of splitting hairs for no reason; if I’m going to plant a flag on a series of statements, I want it to be for a good reason. And there’s something to the fact that World of Warcraft players have gone from getting a beta by the end of the year to the current state of alpha with no indications of when the testing is supposed to shift into beta territory. That prompts some conclusions, and none of them is positive.
Here’s a fun thought exercise for you all: explain the differences between Fire Mages and Destruction Warlocks in World of Warcraft. But before you do so, let’s make things a little more interesting by saying that you cannot use abilities, rotations, or resources to differentiate between the two of them. In other words, you can’t differentiate them based upon what they do; you can only differentiate them based upon what they are.
In this case, it’s not very difficult. Fire Mages are masters of fire magic through careful study and practice. They’ve mastered the art of flame almost as a thought exercise, specializing in the most destructive form of arcane application but still primarily devoted to learning. Destruction Warlocks, meanwhile, have forged pacts with demons to borrow the intrinsic powers of the nether realms. It’s possible – even probable – that those pacts will eventually have an additional cost, but for the time being the Warlock may use demonic powers for personal gain.
This is the importance of class fantasies and why they’re important to the game moving forward. And it also demonstrates the problem with them, and it hints at why these fantasies have suddenly become more important with Legion.
I’ve been paying rapt attention to the ongoing-though-paused World of Warcraft Legion alpha tests because said tests are looking good. That’s a positive. Whilst the actual decisions being made about testing and the state of the live game don’t earn a lot of praise from me, what we’ve seen of the expansion that Legion is becoming makes me feel very positive. There’s only a thin slice available, but it’s enough to make things interesting.
Let’s talk about that today, starting with the obvious bit of the Artifact weapons.
One of my favorite bits from The Office is when Michael is having his budget explained to him. You don’t need to know the context; the funniest bit is right on YouTube, as it’s explained to him that there are elements of his budget that are devoted not to bills or to luxuries but to things that no one would ever need under any circumstances. It’s absurd. It’s ridiculous.
That’s how I feel about the World of Warcraft process on Legion testing so far. It’s not that the decisions being made are bad, although they are, it’s that they are absurd. They do not make any sense. It’s like trying to read about the Time Cube, where every time it starts to sort of make sense you realize that no, that actually makes less sense.
I can’t even really say they’re altogether bad decisions, just… weird ones. Ones that don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. Let’s just sort of… walk though them, analyze them, and try to make sense out of it. Even though I know it’s ultimately a fruitless exercise.
Last week was a pretty fun ride, I have to say. Leaving aside everything else we had to chew on after a weekend’s worth of BlizzCon, the World of Warcraft team really went to town with the class previews. I didn’t discuss them last week mostly because we had other things to talk about, but I did greatly enjoy reading them, and after a week or so to mull over all of the changes I think we’ve got enough space to consider all of the changes being made.
Overall, I’m thoroughly happy about what’s being done with all of the classes. There are a couple of losses and a few classes not receiving perhaps as much attention as they deserve, but on a whole the class changes are positive and improve the game for the better. There’s also a lot we don’t know, unfortunately, and the changes aren’t actually the same as opening the beta that we kind of need to already have running at this point, but the first impressions are positive.
Well, folks, we’re officially living in a post-BlizzCon world. Until the next one. The point is, we’re done with that convention, and all that’s left is considering what is coming next for World of Warcraft and how close we got to all of the various elements that I said we really needed to come out of the convention. So how did Blizzard do?
Pretty well, actually. If you missed the four liveblogs I did and didn’t see my reactions in real-time, I suppose that’s news. (The Grand Magistrix has power over time.)
As with any convention, there was good and bad. Now that we’ve all had a few days to digest the information that’s come out of the weekend festivities, it’s a good time to examine the systems that were announced, the order of the presentation, and how well the job of managing expectations while building hype has been achieved. It’s not perfect, and it’s too early to call it even a return to form, but this far nothing has knocked my cautious optimism off the rails, so that’s something.
It’s go time tomorrow: BlizzCon is almost here, and I’m going to be liveblogging my way through most of the event. And boy, it’s coming at an interesting time, what with the game officially declaring that it will no longer announce subscription numbers in the same year that the game has lost about 45% of its subscriber base.
I could write a whole column on that, sure, but it would mostly be 1200 words about the simple fact that the Powers That Be realizing how bad the news looks even when the financial falloff isn’t as bad as it may appear. But to be quite honest, what’s far more interesting to me is what needs to happen over the next couple of days, and I’m penning this now so we can all argue about whether or not BlizzCon delivered after it’s all over. So what do we need to see about Legion to serve as a much-needed boost to World of Warcraft player morale?
The funny thing about World of Warcraft – and I should note here that I’m using “funny” in this case as a synonym for “odd” rather than “hilarious” – is that the game has been around long enough to make a lot of design mistakes, fix those mistakes, and then make those same design mistakes again. I find the overall thrust of patch 6.2.3 kind of baffling, since it’s bringing back a currency that should not have been removed in the first place for a purpose that almost no one liked, and hoping that this will get people to stick with the game for the lengthy gap until Legion arrives.
Ultimately, though, it’s a symptom of some issues that the game has had for a while, a longstanding set of bad habits that have an awkward tendency to stick around long after it should be obvious that these are bad ideas. So just to change things up with the game’s next expansion, perhaps it’s time to look at some bad habits the game has long been guilty of and actually address them rather than just assuming they don’t really matter.
For about four years, Cataclysm handily defended its title of Worst World of Warcraft Expansion, coming in behind all of the actual expansions as well as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Warhammer Online, and Superman 64. It was bad, that’s my point here. And the stuff that we have to go through along the leveling path for it is still bad, which unfortunately means levels 1-60 followed by 80-85 (with the granted exception of the Worgen starting area).
So it’s understandable to look at one of its major features with a certain amount of terror. “What, you want to revise the world? We already had an expansion do that, and it was awful!” And you would be right in saying that, yes, but there are lots of reasons the game needs some revisions to existing content… and more importantly, why the noxious crap of Cataclysm need not afflict any future updates to older content.