WandaVision and D+ Content

My wife bought a year’s worth of Disney+ over the holidays. I am personally not a fan of annual subs for things that I am not actively using – I do have Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Spotify, since I use those nearly every day. D+ is different. We binged on the Mandalorian, watched Soul, some Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and a couple other films. And now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of interest (for me). It’s not a lot of money for us, and we’re still miles away from the previous cable costs that we cut 10 years ago, but I guess it’s a principle thing.

D+ certainly has plans for content streaming, no questions. Investment in the Marvel world and a bajillion offshoots to the Star Wars world are on the way. Not tomorrow, or next month though. From a month to month basis, is there content that makes sense to pay a fee? There’s no ‘vault’ content that’s suddenly going to show up here.

I think Disney is aware of this challenge, and why they are taking the non-binge approach to release. Having week to week releases makes sense if you want to maintain engagement (hello Blizz!) and therefore subscriptions. Netflix pumps out insane content in large chunks to keep engagement.

Slight tangent on episodic vs serial content. Episodic is something like Star Trek TNG. You can watch it in pretty much any order and it makes sense. A serial is closer to LOST or GoT, where missing an episode is a problem as it has key pieces for the next one. It works in a positive sense, as it allows you to digest what occurred before the next episode. Which is one reason why I like The Boys more than Umbrella Academy.

Now for WandaVision. The pitch for this series does not do justice to the actual content. It’s weekly and serial, so there’s than concept of engagement or at least digestion between episode. Without spoiling, it’s set up as a spoof of a 50s romcom, like I Love Lucy. Which it does, but with a surreal tone, effectively breaking the 4th wall on a regular basis.

By the third episode it’s moved into the 70s, and we’re in Stranger Things / Twilight Zone territory now. The framing is consistent to the period, but the subject matter is clearly a different thread.

I won’t spoil anything, but state that the challenge with this particular format (30m serial) is that you need a really good hook (or frankly, hooks) to keep interest going. There is but one hook now, as it’s a 2 person show. That low risk approach makes the time space between episodes feel long rather than an opportunity to dig deeper. If it was an hour long, or if there were more story threads then it would be more engaging. Mandalorian is a great example of this, where it was borderline episodic, but had serial elements that you wanted to see through.

WandaVision is good. More than good, as compared to pretty much any 30min piece of entertainment out there. Is it worth paying 2-3 months of D+ until it reaches its end of arc? eh, not really.

Familiar Fire

A couple weeks ago I started a new job. Well, sort of new. It’s in a field I used to work, yet a different level of involvement. As much as there’s a natural sense of déjà vu when you pick up something after a couple years, there’s also the assumptions you have heading into it.

The good news is that there are still some familiar faces around, which really helps with any transition. I’ve always found the hardest part of change is people, so having established relationships before the move helps to a crazy degree. The second bit is that since I’ve maintained those relationships, I have some relative idea of the state of affairs within the group. There are (and will be) gaps in my understanding, yet both combined mean that I’ve been able to do in 2 weeks what normally would take 2 months.

The less good is the whole baggage still that comes with. I know this field, I know it really well. It was a launching pad for my career, the cause of a burnout, and some emotional scars that I don’t think will ever heal. That gives me a set of assumptions heading into this, and the danger that I fall into old bad habits. It’s an active task to repress those habits, which is terribly exhausting. It’s like giving a kid an ice cream cone and telling them not to eat it. Just drives you crazy.

While I do work in the IT industry, my general job description is more in like with enterprise architecture (EA). I am not aware of any school teaching this in a graduate sense, it’s more like a practice or approach to work. Most graduates I do hire come from some sort of engineering background, and then we train them in this model. EA being a work practice can be transplanted without too many hiccups, which certainly reflects my particular career path. It isn’t terribly useful in an operational sense (there’s ITSM for that), yet for planning and change… it really does an amazing job.

The ‘sales pitch’ for this job was just to address the vertical group, those that report directly to me. So setting up some strategic plans, addressing a couple wrinkles, and basically getting it on track for a modernization initiative underway. I am grossly simplifying, but the task itself was one I’ve done a few times, so it seemed like a nice temporary change of pace. I’ve had some side project ideas, and this seemed a good way to deliver those on top of smaller core obligations.

The reality is that the strategic plans are foundational to the organization’s existence. As in, do hundreds of people have jobs in 3 years or not? Further, the breadth of the strategy impacts a half dozen other similar services which are all asking the same question. And the modernization initiative underway has some serious gaps – things I’ve still got scars from. This ‘simple’ pitch is in reality both an immediate crisis to manage, and an existential one that crosses multiple streams.

I am purposefully avoiding detail. For one, it likely wouldn’t interest most people. Two, the type of work I do necessitates a level of discretion. Certainly one of the perks of having a common name that I can run this blog as I do.

That said, the closest analogy is that I was pitched the idea of being a GM of a relatively stable sports team. The reality is that I’ll need to run a task under the league commish to see how the sport even exists down the road. And given my history in sports team management, folks are expecting that this is both an impossible task, and one that I can still accomplish.

So yeah, feeling good in my level of understanding, very anxious to the challenge and expectations, and further optimistic as to the people I get to work with to get this done.

Supply, Demand, and Perspective

It’s really fascinating how financial models apply to online social interactions – in particular anonymous ones. If you don’t have a known person, then it’s no different treating a box or AI. The empathy gap is serious, and there’s a VERY large thread related to the pros/cons to internet anonymity. That is not this post.

This post is about the concepts of supply and demand in relation to WoW’s Mythic + content – M+. In order to access M+, you need to complete basic Mythic difficulty dungeons. Your performance gives you a key to access higher levels of M+. Those events are then timed. There are three end conditions

  • Beat the timer and get +1key to a different dungeon, and 2 pieces of gear.
  • Beat the dungeon but not the timer and you lose a key level to a different dungeon, and get 1 pieces of gear.
  • Leave the dungeon without completing and the key goes down a level, but stays the same dungeon (allowing people to manually downgrade the key level)

This makes it so that the risk of success / failure is entirely borne by the owner of the key. The penalty for not making time is not horrendous. It’s not that you need to redo the dungeon, its just that you get a slight downgrade on the key. In this context, the supply of keys is limited, as it gates access to content, and by proxy, the supply of key owners is also limited. Further, due to the difficulty / reward structure of M+, there’s an even further limit to the number of high level keys. I think it’s something like 3% of all runs are currently M15.

Since it takes 5 people to run a dungeon, there’s 5x more people without keys than with keys. This means that the supply of all possible players is larger than the amount of keys. Not that they don’t have keys (they likely do) just that only the key used to start the dungeon gets upgraded, and you’ll have plenty of people with +2 keys trying to run +10 dungeons.

Financial math says that systems with low supply and high demand put the power of decisions with the owners of supply (read keys). If there are only 3% of M+ runs that are at 15, that means that of the 100% of players in M+, 97% of them will not get in. It’s not to say they won’t try, it’s to say that they won’t get in.

Falling back to the reward item above, the owner of the key loses a LOT if they don’t make the time on the clock. They are incredibly incentivized to select the best options to improve their odds of winning. If they have the choice between someone who is overpowered for the content and pretty much everyone else… they are going to pick the former. If they have two equal power candidates, then they are going to look at the meta specs (e.g. tanks are going to be DH, not Warrior).

Which, a small tangent, I agree that the meta is not representative of the masses. However, the meta of M+ has a psychological downstream impact.

Let’s compare that to you having a barrel of blueberries in front of you, and the task of baking a single pie. You’re going to select the best looking berries and ignore the ones with twigs, or bumps, or too tiny. The anonymity of WoW makes it so that people are effectively the same – they are just numbers. The odds that you group with someone twice from a LFG / LFR structure are astronomically small.

Now, if you’re the blueberry this stinks! It certainly feels like those job postings that are entry level and asking for 10 years of experience. How is that reasonable? Well, it’s reasonable because there are people with 10 years experience willing to take entry level positions. Your perception is one that the system is unfair, and there’s no way for you to get that experience if you’re not given the shot.

Options?

Run your own key groups. You may ethically think that you won’t be so prescriptive, and it’s certainly possible that’s the case to start. But power corrupts, and you’ll find out why the system works the way it does pretty quickly. This would increase supply of keys, and reduce demand of other players.

Only run with a guild. This is a great option for those with guilds who are large enough to support the structure and various combinations/levels. You can also run this with friends too. This exponentially changes the supply/demand metric, to the point where it may not even apply.

Blizz makes systematic changes that reduce the penalty for not making time. We are in expansion 3 of M+ with zero changes to the way this works. The meta of weekly rewards has been tweaked (the Vault now), but nothing on the individual mechanics, structure, or incentives. So… not likely to actually change.

Blizz makes it so that more people have high level keys. While this sounds cool in theory, it would also mean that more people need to step up to leadership positions. The supply of keys would skyrocket, but the supply of people wanting to lead groups… that’s a big ?

Blizz somehow implements a scoring system. This would effectively be an automated screening tool for making M+ groups, using in-game measurements. You couldn’t apply for things you’re not qualified for, and people would have less applicants to stream. Raider.IO is just another version of GearScore from yore. Modders will fill the void.

It’s absolutely fascinating to see this situation unfold, and the various perspectives applied. With Blizz all but mandating that M+ is the core activity in WoW (there are M+ invitationals after all), it’s no surprise to see so many people enter and push the system forward. Victim of their own success really, with a highly complex and competitive environment somehow trying to be accessible to the masses. Imagine if LoL didn’t have ladder ranks? Or rocket league didn’t have a casual mode? Quite curious where Blizz goes from here… if M+ is the content of choice and piles of people are not able to access it… do we get another LFR?

Core, Satellites, and Sprinkles

Let’s pingback to Kaylriene on his post on SL thoughts after 2 months. This really is a larger game design challenge, and one that as consumers we can feel but often have trouble articulating. Why is it that some games just work despite clear flaws, while others fail even if they are relatively even?

I posit this is more related to psychology and analogous to Maslow’s tower of needs.

In game terms we can instead view this as the core systems, which are then supported or perhaps dependent on satellite systems. Take the first Mass Effect, the core systems were RPG focused on story and character development. The inventory was horrible, and everyone is best to forget the vehicle portions – yet they were not a requirement to enjoy the game. Invert that to something like Anthem, where the core systems were inventory (it’s a loot game after all) and combat. The latter was seen in a positive light, but the former was disastrous.

Or you know, look at Marvel Avengers. The core activities are meaningless and people have just noped their way out.

Look at every GOTY candidate. They all have near perfect core experiences, with some having some challenges on the satellite systems. God of War is near perfect from start to end, every aspect. Horizon’s combat, development, and storylines are great… yet it’s pulled down by the ubisoft-world-map-icon-palooza system. Some even start throwing sprinkles on top of it all, because their foundations are so solid. Hades is a spectacular achievement in system design, and yet they threw in extra cosmetics, an integrated soundtrack, relationship development, and a super complex dependency chart that dictates what dialogue is presented. We get to a point where we’re comparing an indie company as being objectively better than multi-billion dollar developers (such as Last of Us pt 2).

WoW View

But to WoW for a minute here. I do think that SL’s core systems (dungeons, covenants, raids, borrowed power) are all relatively well balanced. Maybe not perfect, but balanced within relatively acceptable levels. The things you need to do generally work. Where SL stumbles is in the things you can optionally do. I could post a bunch of things, you could read Kaylriene’s post, you could visit Reddit or the official forums… suffice to say the list is quite long. The major balance issues are in satellite systems. In the general sense, the rewards for activities in SL is much lower than in recent memory… which is sort of anathema to the concept of carrot and stick.

If we time travel a tad, it’s been a long time since the core systems ‘worked’.

  • BfA – few of the core systems worked. Whether the Azerite Gear or the Corrupted items, or AP grind. The satellite stuff was ok, but had some serious challenges.
  • Legion – the core was generally good, but the AP grind was painful, as well as the heavy RNG on legendaries
  • WoD – the garrison is well, maybe let’s not talk about it. This is where flight was disabled too I may add.
  • MoP – The core systems here worked, by and large. The initial rep grind was tough, and the “forging” system came into play.
  • Cataclysm – the only core was a new talents system, the rest was all satellite. That is a major genesis of the LFR system as no one was engaged in the content.
  • WoLK – the core here was solid, and implemented a pile of new systems. The challenge was on the reforging mechanic and talents, which were removed/revamped in Cata.
  • TBC – The core was amazing here, yet hindered by the attunement system that made it very hard to “catch up” to relevant content
  • Vanilla – I just refer to this as the true sequel to EQ. The core was just a refinement of that game, and changed the MMO landscape as a result.

Each person has a different driver to play a game. Some people need the core to be solid and ignore the satellites, others can ignore the core and just focus on the outside stuff (I’m sure some people enjoy pet battles more than dungeons). It’s not a common thing where a game can do both well. In the MMO space, designers tend to focus on core as the driver for the multiplayer aspect, which in turn drives retention. It is FAR from easy, it requires vision and passion. It certainly requires consuming your product.

Here’s hoping that somewhere in this mess, we as consumers can find a better way to recognize and reward quality. And where it doesn’t exist, find a way to help the developers (who are by and large extra passionate) to find their way forward.

Kyrian Trial of Ascension

With the rather ho-hum review so far, I did want to hit on something I think is working rather well. While each covenant has their own unique activity, I’ve only invested real time into the Kyrian one. The Trial of Ascension is a sort of brawlers guild variant, where you play as one of three characters against boss events. It’s entirely solo content.

I’m a bad news / good news person. So the bad stuff first.

  • You need to farm materials (5 types) to unlock new enemies (10 of them), create items (5 of them) and then various single use items. They drop in all 4 zones, with a 20% rate on specific mobs. Alternatively, you can buy a box with 20 of each in them from 5 Medallions of Service (MoS)
  • It costs 1 MoS per boss attempt. MoS are not a guaranteed drop or reward. You can craft 1 MoS for 8x of each farmable material, which is super painful.
  • If you go into a boss blind, you will not succeed on the first attempt (reasonable!) Some bosses have 1 hit kills. But it costs you a MoS.
  • It costs 45,000 anima to unlock all the bosses and difficulties. It costs a further 45,000 anima to unlock all the rewards (I hear some prince in Nigeria is interested in this model). Imagine you got a drop from a raid boss and it cost you 1000 anima to use it?

Long story short, it’s a grind to access this activity, a grind to participate, and another grind to claim your rewards.

Now for the good stuff!

  • Each of the 10 bosses has unique mechanics that change depending on difficulty. The quests to unlock them can be interesting in their own right. There’s very limited RNG, nearly everything is pattern based.
  • You have 3 characters to choose from, each with their strengths and weaknesses.
  • You have the option to equip gear (permanent) or charms (1 time use) to add benefits to a run. Things like improved speed, a shield, healing, more damage and whatnot.
  • The increased difficulty requires smart playing to get through. Face tanking isn’t an option. Depending on your normal class, this will require some interesting mechanical changes.
  • All stats are normalized, meaning your regular character’s gear has no impact.
  • Most fights take less than 5 minutes.
  • The challenge is learning the appropriate tactics and then executing them as close to perfect as possible.

Blizzard has built a very interesting activity that’s a merger of the Withering and Mage Tower events from Legion. It’s an active battle simulator that treats all players the same, and has a cost of entry. That is a reasonable design goal (maybe less in an MMO, since it’s solo only) that as a distinct activity, it really quite fun.

Yet, Blizz being Blizz, they’ve put in a ridiculous grind to participate in the fun. The mats require a massive grind. The MoS require you to do Callings for the best drop chance. The anima costs are completely insane given the current drop rates from content. It also requires renown unlocks to access 2 of the 3 characters since you need to have bindings to them. These are simple fixes… increase the drop rates on the grind to 100%, drop multiple MoS per calling (5 per day), cut the anima investment costs by 50% and remove all anima costs for the rewards. It will still take a month to get through all the content. Focus on the actual content as the time investment, rather than granting access to the activity.

As it is now, this feels like some of the best content in SL is something everyone is going to avoid. I’d be curious as to how the activities feel in other Covenants.

Mandatory Buffet

The only benefit to consumers for a buffet is the sheer variety of options for a fixed cost. The quality is rarely that of a focused restaurant. The benefit to the restaurant is that they have a much larger client base and a rather consistent income stream because of it. The expense management aspect is similar to other restaurants (people make different choices), yet there can be massive spikes with no corresponding income spike. You should be able to identify trends and accommodate, but the launch is going to be rough – or if you get a sports team show up. Consumers generally sour on buffets if there is not enough food, or if the quality dips beyond a certain level (e.g. it’s cold).

Why is this relevant? Most games offer a buffet type approach. Assassin’s Creed is a perfect example of this, you have dozens of possible activities. MMOs also have this, in that you can craft, hunt, dungeon, raid, or other. The difference is in the structure of the buffet in that things are an option or not.

MMO players have differing goals. Some like the social part, some the achievements, some discovery, some the competition. Most games have a gate that prevents access to a given function, either player level or player power. Some are soft gates (you can try something while underpowered but it will be very hard) or they are hard gates (you simply cannot access the feature).

In WoW, there are both. The hard gates are usually related to levels (90% of the game is locked at max level), or to a quest. The quests are notable in WoW, as most items are time gated. Even if you have all the pre-requisites done, you still have to wait for that gate to be accessible (covenant storylines, twisting corridors). The soft gates are power related, or ilevel. You need a certain level to do dungeons, another for raiding, and so on. If you want to access the full buffet, then you need to increase your power level or renown level.

To increase renown, you need to do your covenant quests. These require you to do a set of activities (you don’t get to choose which):

  • collect souls from the maw (weekly)
  • collect 1000 anima (weekly) – anima comes from WQ + dungeons
  • complete some combination world quests (daily)
  • complete a specific dungeon (uncommon daily)
  • complete a PvP event

If you want to increase your power level, you need to:

  • complete the odd WQ that has a reward
  • complete the covenant story (through renown + dungeons) and boost your item level
  • complete relevant dungeons and get a drop
  • complete raids and get a drop
  • complete PvP and raise your rank
  • open the weekly vault, which stems from completing mythic+ dungeons, raids, and/or PvP
  • complete the weekly open world boss and get a drop
  • complete 2+ Torghast runs to get ash for legendary upgrades

Assuming you’re a fresh 60, that’s a big buffet! Nearly all of it is right at your door when you start too. You’re going to try as many pieces as you can, then develop a taste for one or two. Then you realize you’ll need…

  • to do WQ for the weekly anima quest
  • to run the Maw once a week for the souls quest
  • to do WQ for renown increases
  • to run Torghast multiple times (at least twice) to get soul ash for your legendary
  • to PvP for renown and vault rewards
  • to raid for vault rewards
  • to run M+ dungeons for vault rewards

“Need” may be a harsh word, you don’t need to do any of it. You can ignore all the systems if you want, and just do the content you enjoy. The game will hamper that enjoyment if you don’t engage in more systems, but that’s entirely up to you. That loot is so incredibly sparse, if ever you do see something drop, you’re going to jump on it and forcibly try any avenue to get that artificial number to increase.

The cynic in me see this design approach as on par with mobile games and their focus on engagement. Or, as we’ve all seen reported, Monthly Average Users (MAU). The game is purposefully designed to tunnel you into ALL activities, whether you enjoy it or not. If you don’t enjoy content and (feel the) need to do it, then that is not a positive feedback loop. If that content is not working properly (e.g. Beastwarrens bugs, placeholders in Torghast, anima rewards that don’t scale, broken mission tables, broken WQ gimmicks, etc…) and you need to do it, then ugh.

In the individual mechanism space, on the whole, Shadowlands improves on BfA. You never have a reversion of power. The borrowed power mechanic doesn’t scale to absolutely stupid levels. You’re never looking at triple RNG (-forging). But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t see how the game could have gotten worse than BfA. It reminds me of an Eddie Murphy joke.

Shadowlands feels like this.

Covenants

Or, as I like to call them, Class Halls 2.0.

There’s been a lot of talk about Covenants, as they are the main feature of Shadowlands – driving the majority of the story, providing a reward structure, and a “borrowed power” mechanic. Picking one is easy. Changing one means you’re losing ~2 weeks of time gated content.

I’ve got Kyrian and Venthyr storylines running. They are interesting and varied, taking place across multiple zones. I won’t go into a pile of details, due to spoilers. I would be surprised if anyone picked a Covenant due to the story (maybe for aesthetics though, which is another topic). They are time gated, and catch up mechanics are present. They do not, as of yet, appear to intersect.

The reward structure is very similar in both. You get a travel hub to speed up zone travel, which is great, cause zone travel is horrendous. Side note – crappy travel means I harvest a ton of herbs/ore without really trying. Somewhere around 200k in profit in 3 weeks. You get access to a very odd mission table structure that is completely unbalanced. Venthyr/Kyrian are running at half the power of the other two factions, and the UI is so bad that it’s frankly not worth trying unless you use something like Venture Plan. Another item is a sort of temporary event generator that you’ll likely do once and never again – primarily due to the horrendous travel time and lack of rewards. Finally, each faction gets their own unique side activity. Venthyr throw parties, Kyrian have a very interesting battle arena, gated through grinding components. It’s a cool concept, meant to emphasize world exploration. Maybe at some point I’ll do more of it.

A small pit stop on identifying people in a covenant. It seems a lost opportunity that people within a covenant would not want to work together, or identify other people in their covenant. Tabards at the minimum. Player power, not so much, cause that would sway guild/player choice. Yet there are certainly some opportunities here… like more Stygia if you group in the Maw. Even the Horde / Alliance differentiator is completely absent here.

The borrowed power though, that’s where things go a bit sideways. There are lateral choices for some classes, and outright bad choices for others. DH can swap between Kyrian and Venthyr, but Necrolords are an insanely bad choice. Icy-Veins has a pretty good summary of how people have selected their covenants. The “pretty” factions lead, which further pushes the Elf/Blood Elf value. Necrolords are 16% of the total, which given both their ability and unique activity… yeah.

What’s interesting to me is the breakdown on a class basis. For multi-spec classes, this can get a bit muddy as people have a preference. That Druids pick Night Fae first, in all specs, and like 9:1… that’s a problem. Same with Paladins and Monks for Kyrian. The “pure DPS” classes you’d expect somewhat flat choices, though it’s more like no one wants to be a Necrolord Mage.

Is it hard to balance skills across all the class/spec variations? Heck ya. Is it OK to have preferences, sure. Less OK is when one option is superior to all others. This falls back into the argument of paragon/renegade, where is everyone makes the same choice, there really isn’t a choice to be made. It’s also a challenge from a design perspective, as you can’t really change the powers too much, as people will then math it out and show that a new bad choice is present and want compensation to change. It’s a very interesting spot they’ve painted themselves into.

In a general sense, I think Convenants work. They provide thematic tools to expand on the player experience. Covenant abilities could have used more time in the oven, but the issue at hand is related to reducing the penalty from swapping between choices (which will get worse as more renown ranks are unlocked). Combat Tables should just be removed from the game at this point, right up there with Archeology.

Overall it sort of works. This is a bit like falling upwards from BfA though. They are better than garrisons in that they are not instanced, and don’t pump out insane raid level rewards. But they are worse in story telling as compared to class halls. When “it’s ok” is seen an improvement, expectations are out of whack.

The Maw

Leveling and Torghast so far have a thumbs up. They have their quirks, but all told, positives. Now for the Maw.

I clearly remember the Timeless Isle in MoP, targeted as a daily activity to hunt down rares and frankly, gear the crap out of any alt you may have had. It was an interesting zone, and really quite innovative at the time. Each expansion has brought their own version to bear since then, with varying levels of success. Legion is still a high water mark for me. Nazjatar I have a crazy dislike due to zone design, and Mechagon seems like it could have used the space better. The less we talk about Tanaan, the better. None of them allowed for flying at the start, but all of them allowed mounting.

The biggest point about all of these is that they came after the main expansion, and were mechanically bound to catch-up mechanics and new storylines.

The Maw is this weird space where it takes a lot of pieces of those zones and puts them at the start of an expansion. It has plenty of rares and it’s own faction. Travel is improved over time. It has an interesting (-ish) time gate mechanic so that you can’t just grind it for hours. On the surface, it’s an interesting proposition.

The challenge is in WoW’s risk vs reward mindset, caked in through nearly 15 years of training. The rewards from the Maw are

  • Faction & currency to improve travel (which is character bound)
  • Faction & currency to improve RNG in Torghast (which is account bound)
  • Faction and currency to randomly improve a low level conduit (character bound)
  • Faction and currency to add a gem slot to a legendary (character bound)
  • A weekly i183 gear drop chance
  • A potential mount (3 days out of 14), but from a quest broken since launch
  • Access to 2 more “hard mode” zones in the Maw

You can optimize and get ~1500 faction a day. 42,000 total to max, so you’re looking at a month of daily play to get there (weekly quests are there too).

Jailer Levels

As a time gating mechanic, this sort of makes sense. Level 1 is meaningless. Level 2 is easy to manage, if you’re not in an massive AE battle (e.g. Jailer event). Level 3 is a new level of annoyance, spawning an NPC that keeps you in battle for the entire map. Level 4 can’t be avoided, you just get scooped up and need to kill the target before they kill you, and survive the fall damage. Level 5 is just like level 3, but if they touch you, you die.

It’s entirely possible to run around with level 5, it is not possible to enter combat and survive at level 5. Completing both daily quests will get you to level 2. Hunt rares to go higher.

Early Experience

As a fresh 60, you’re dropped into the Maw to run some basic quests. Horrendously undergeared, and a map that makes little sense, it’s not a good first run. You’ll see some rares, and promptly get wiped out. Most players are going to have a rough time at the 150-ish gear level. That the mobs are so tightly spaced, you’re going to aggro tons of stuff just getting around. And thematically, the zone is supposed to be punishing, right?

I should mention it’s the first open world zone in which you cannot mount, and the game does nothing to explain why that is, or how to change it. If you’re a DK, be ready for a bad time.

Finally, its near impossible to navigate the Maw without an add-on. HandyNotes is practically required,

The Mid Game

Frankly, the only reason to even bother with the Maw is if you like Torghast. Aside from a potential renown quest from your faction, there are zero reasons to go into the Maw. There are no transmogs, the achievements are gated behind harder content, there are no gear drops.

This is further examined as you open up the other areas in the Maw and see that there’s no one there. All the players are in the “starter” area of the map.

The End Game

Is a month end game? I dunno. Is 1 gem slot worth a month’s faction grind? By the time you find value in the Maw rewards, you’ve so dramatically overleveled the zone that you’ll be killing everything in there in 5 GCD. And after you’ve done it once, it’s a near guarantee you’ll never want to see that zone again.

Overall

The Maw feels like an undercooked mechanic. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Isles in BfA, and that’s primarily because it can be done solo. But that’s also the Achilles heel here, if you don’t like Torghast, then there’s no reason to go in the Maw aside from the random renown quest. Every other system in the game offers a better reward for your time, even just walking around.

Credit to Blizz here in that no alts are required (or even suggested) to do the Maw. There’s zero in here for them, aside from a potential weekly quest for renown. It does make you question why they would have designed an ENTIRE zone that no one wants to go through. I have to hold out some hope that there are long terms plans for the Maw. The concepts here are well worth exploring.

Torghast Thoughts

Hades is my game of the year. Dead Cells has a few dozen hours. My mobile device always has some sort of incremental installed. I really like the concept of growth over time, and that there are ceilings where you need to restart. The “pure” rogues are frankly more like Mario Bros on the NES, where each playthrough is independent of the next, aside from experience. Todays’ versions take that concept, then add RNG to a given run (skills/weapons/spawned enemies), yet maintain a set of rules (e.g. the map has X drops, Y set of enemies). The most popular ones provide tiers of progress within their structure. As much as they are pauses in a given run, they often give rewards for the meta gameplay. In other words, while a full run gives 100% resources, a partial run gives you something.

With that foundation of expectations, my thoughts on Torghast are a mixed bag. First, the not so good.

There are a lot of anima powers. They are average to good, though there are quite a few that drop that are outright bad. Some are bugged. Some have horrible descriptions of what they do. Some are actually built to destroy a run (e.g. can’t move). While I’m game that experience tells you which powers are better than others, there are limits. A good rogue-like will define a run quickly through choice… and it’s rare that by the end of floor 1 you have a defined build in mind.

Ravenous Anima Cells allow you to convert an enemy into a power. You need a wiki entry to see which are actually useful (or just try on the dozens of enemies), which is a giant waste of anima. Some wings are useless, others are amazing. The concept here is great. The implementation… not so much.

Some of the tuning is really weird. Using this week…Mort’regar is full of very large fights with enemies that are hidden. Skoldus Hall has an enemy that continually casts AE attacks that debuff players if they get touched – like 10% per stack and that stick around if you die. So either you kill the bugger (and use their power to cleanse yourself) or your run is pretty much over. Bosses are all over the place, where you may find floor 5 a cakewalk, then the 6th floor boss hits you for 25% a shot. (Credit to Blizz for the downtuning on Dec 17th for pretty much everything.) The RNG on floor design is also a bit iffy. You can have a straight corridor that lasts 2 minutes, or you can have a maze that takes 20 minutes.

The reward structure is only based on completion, which is surreal. There is no content in the game where you can do something for an hour and get nothing for it. (Group content still has drops, whether you can use it or not is different.) The meta buffs, which impact future runs, have NOTHING to do with Torghast. You get those through faction gains in the Maw.

Torghast should be account based, not character based. Full stop. Time gating on content here is dumb, since if you’ve done it on one character, then you know what’s coming. There’s zero benefit here except stalling the ALT enjoyment process. The meta boosts are account based, the floor rewards are meta. But accessing the quests or twisting corridors? Nope.

There are no rewards for exploration except more currency. Seems a wasted opportunity.

Now for the good.

The variety in builds is nice to see. There are some crazy OP options for nearly everyone, but they require amazing RNG. Some only shine if you stack them, or if you combo them with others. Or, you could end up with a run where you just end up with +HP. It rewards adaptation.

The skill floor is at a decent spot. It may not be communicated, and it’s certainly RNG heavy, but players need to use most of their skill set to survive (e.g. interrupts / stuns). It could use a couple “long cast” options where it’s near certain death, especially at the floor bosses. If we can’t get the proving grounds, then this is the next best place for it.

The NPCs you meet are useful. Very useful. To the point where you don’t want them to leave, and only complete their quest after clearing the entire floor. It makes the other rewards (chests) seem “meh”. Which, again, the RNG fun of it all.

The enemy variety is nice. You have melee, ranged, AE, DoTs… the whole mix. You need to prioritize targets, stun a few, and pull away to AE. It can get painful, especially where multiple enemies can fear and throw you to the edge where a small step kills you. (The chain bridges have horrible clipping…)

The rare elites are really nice changes of pace, and about half of them have interesting anima powers. They feel like a much better expression of risk/reward than anything else in all of Torghast.

The diminishing returns of Torghast are also good to see. 375 ash for layer 4, and only 195 more if you get to layer 8.

Summary

Rohan said it best, Torghast is effectively a Rextroy simulator. What kind of crazy can you come up with and make it work. It is not a measure of player skill, and barely one of item level. What you go in with has only a small impact on your ability to succeed. Sure, rocking 210 gear is going to be a boost, but you can still clear most of it at 155.

There are still some weird questions here, as to the long term purpose of Torghast. In particular why it doesn’t have it’s own mechanics and why it is gated behind 7 weeks of time gates to get someone else into the twisting corridors. Still, it’s a solid alternative to the go-go-go of M+. With a few more tweaks, this could be a transmog / collection dream come true.

Shadowlands Leveling

WoW has already undergone enough squishing that I sort of expect it in every other expansion. I’ve talked at length on the insane power curve problems that Blizz has self-inflicted, and this continues in SL. The squish does nothing to fix that problem, it just makes sure that their servers don’t blow up dividing by zero.

The Early Game

Squishing levels though, that’s different. After BFA’s attrocious power “wave” approach to leveling and gearing (where everyone got weaker, then stronger, then weaker, and again…), SL had a goal of resetting the leveling power curve. Levels themselves were meaningless, aside than an artificial gate on content. With the squish to 50, it makes the dings a tad more meaningful. After having gone through it, it could have had even another 20 levels shaved and no one would really have noticed. There were really only a dozen times where I stopped and re-ordered my play style – some basic rotational skills and then the 6 talents.

Speed-wise it was admittedly a lot faster than prior. There’s still a “hell level” section in the 30s (which was the 70s prior) where it feels like molasses, but the overall process is MUCH more enjoyable. The fun part here is that the entire leveling experience can be contained to a single expansion. War mode is a nice bonus, but as always, you need to turn it off for the real content (50-60).

I find it somewhat hilarious that WoD is the defacto leveling zone. The bonus objectives are reasonable (more so than SL), the double hearthstone makes a big difference, the treasures are a big boost, and most of the zones are decent while on the ground. Having WoD flying is a huge boost to time, and the garrison is almost entirely ignored. I still don’t have a positive memory of the WoD leveling experience, story-wise. Mechanically though, it is hard to argue the efficiencies. If Legion didn’t have class halls, it would be the fastest by far. Pandaria is my next favourite way to go, but you miss out on a lot of “bonus xp” stuff.

So the 1-50 stuff goes by pretty fast. The Azeroth Auto-pilot speeds it up further (I usually put that on for the 2nd alt and beyond). My last attempt was a Druid, which is like turbo mode for leveling. Herbalism/Mining is still a wild XP boost while leveling. And the way that the game dumps tons of gold into the bag isn’t hurtful (WoD is extremely generous). I had no issues getting 30 slot bags and all flying unlocked at 50… with a lot left over.

Chromie Time deserves a thought. This makes it so that the entire game scales to 1-50. If you don’t do this, then you’re going to max out a zone’s level. With no in-game explanation. This option is only available if you already have a level 50 character… so the whole refer-a-friend thing doesn’t work here. Why does this even exist as a choice and not be the default?

Overall, a significant improvement. But…

The class trial does a better job of getting you ready to play the game than anything 1-50. The content from 1-50 (aside from pet battles) is completely irrelevant, and in no way resembles the gameplay in SL, at or before 60. The amount of opportunities available here to ease new players into whatever it is Blizz has in store for them is absent. I know, I know, who hasn’t played WoW that would be interested at all? Enough for it to be worth it. Exile’s Reach is a good attempt, but it should end with the player ready for that expansion’s content. And for the love of all that’s covered with cheese, why oh why can’t Blizz find a way to make the proving grounds part of the leveling experience?

Shadowlands Content

I did both the campaign and the threads of fate. Or rather, the tutorial and then expert mode. The world design is still something to celebrate, and there are plenty of times where I just stopped to appreciate it all. The characters, the arcs, the arts… just really well done. The flow of the story is decent too, so much that you don’t really notice the travel time between the points. I’m sure everyone comes out with a favourite by the end, and the trial of the covenant abilities is solid. Blizz’ dependency on every fantasy trope in the book generally works, especially considering that they have access to every single Warcraft character they’ve killed (where’s Arthas?), making for some interesting interactions. It also allows access to every other world in the Warcraft universe… By the time you’re done the campaign you have a good idea of what’s going on, what skills you’d like, and which team you’d like to pledge for. In terms of “consistent” story, this is really top notch.

The threads of fate opens up after your first campaign, allowing you to level as you want. Each zone has a bar that fills up based on your activities, then you move to the other zones. The advantage here is that each zone gives you 1 renown level, the only catchup mechanic in game currently. The disadvantage is that you need to find the content to complete. Quests are great, as are rares (if they are up), yet you need to travel A LOT to find them. Bonus objectives are so very, very painful to complete, and with pitiful rewards. Harvest 20 of anything and you’ll get more experience. Travel itself is also unpleasant, since the quests are not typically chained. It is neither faster, nor more rewarding than the campaign. The real benefit is if you want to chain run dungeons and get renown. Well, not completely true. There are some hidden gem quests that you will really only see in this mode. A shame really.

I will point out that people will truly appreciate zone design if they take the threads of fate path. Revendreth has a dense and vertical design, almost claustrophobic. Andrenweald has a branch/leaf design (you’re in a hub, then in a field, then in a hub). Bastion is large open plains. And Maldraxxus… well, it’s there alright.

Another post will go into the experience from 60 and beyond. What I will say is that when you do hit 60, the deluge of new systems-with-no-explanation comes at you fierce. This is the expansion with the least amount of training wheels I’ve yet to see. It gives you all of this, no explanation of why or even if it’s important.

Overall

This is WoW at it’s most streamlined. It has never been faster to level. Nearly every ding has some meaning (big or small). There are no bells and whistles, systems just come at you full speed. The 1-50 portion highlights how meaningless it actually is. The 50-60 campaign/thread of fate is a great choice for leveling, with two truly distinct paths. It’s arguably a better single player RPG than most AAA games out there. Hats off to the art/world design teams.