Sunday, March 29, 2009

Barnett and Kaplan at GDC 2009

I find it kind of telling that at the Game Developers Conference this year in San Francisco, the lead designers for both Warhammer:AoR and WoW gave extremely different lectures. Paul Barnett, famous for his showmanship, gave a typically flashy speech with off-the-wall jokes ("we need more elephants") and non sequiturs ("draw a Q on your forehead") that didn't have anything to do with the advertised topic of his lecture. Some people find his manic and seemingly aimless energy inspiring I guess, because his speeches seemed to be the bulk of the early marketing Mythic used for WAR during development. People gathered around his grand ideas of what was wrong with MMO gaming in general and what he was going to do to fix it. About his biggest specific point at the conference seemed to be that mobile devices were the future of gaming. Oh that's a nice thought, Mr. Barnett. So how exactly do you see that breaking down? Any examples? Will you personally be cashing in on this great insight?

Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) on the other hand, stuck to his topic, had an agenda, and broke his topic down into quantifiable specifics. Some examples:
  • Combat should be about a minute long
  • Stranglethorn pages questline is a bad idea due to inventory limitations
  • Random drop quests should use incremental probabilities to even out streaks
People have talked ad nauseum about the "polish" that sets Blizzard games apart. And sometimes I fear that in the minds of the average person, game "polish" is like literal polish where the product is done and then if you spend just a few more minutes on it at the end you can make it much better. Polish in software design is nothing like that. Most of the "polish" in large software projects takes place in the design stage, before the coders touch pen to paper. Once you're into development it becomes increasingly difficult to look at the product as it's shaping up and say, "this feature isn't quite working for us. Let's try something else." That's what causes over-budget projects, blown deadlines, and producers that rush to ship something that doesn't quite work. It's not that the development team failed to spend enough time at the end. It's that they failed to make good design decisions up front when they're supposed to be made. It takes a lot of brilliant people to do that. It takes a good nuts-and-bolts understanding of game design issues and the ability to make hard, specific decisions about all sorts of nitty gritty things that seem like unimportant details. It's not about glamorous, sweeping statements about "making the game fun" like I associate with Barnett. It's the ability to intelligently lay out specific pros and cons of design details like I associate with Kaplan.

Kaplan is now working on Blizzard's next-generation MMO, funded no doubt by the astronomical profits of WoW. Barnett, I'm sure pretty is fighting to keep WAR in the black. Kaplan's next game I will no doubt be spending money to play. Barnett's next game I'll be downloading his marketing speeches on for entertainment value.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The problem with mana

Mana creates a game mechanic where players must make choices. They bargain with the game using a kind of currency. You can save up and splurge later, or blow your wad now, investing in the hope that your debts won't catch up to you. For healers, this kind of bargaining makes a lot of sense. Healers are in the business of risk management. Our heals mitigate risk of player deaths and wipes. But the more healing we throw into the encounter, the less value each additional heal has. At a point, the group will be so saturated with heals that throwing more would have little to no benefit. So there are two competing forces: the need to heal and the need to not exhaust our mana. As we heal more and more, the value of additional healing declines, and the need to conserve mana balances it out. An equilibrium is reached, and the player's skill is in finding and maintaining that equilibrium. Or at least so it should be. In the current WoW content, healer's rarely exhaust their mana. And Blizzard is making changes to the speed at which mana regenerates to try and re-introduce this equilibrium and aspect of player skill into the healing game.

But none of this really makes sense for damage dealers, who convert their mana into offensive spells. For a DPS class, adding more DPS always has value. In most cases, the value never even changes. DPS is DPS is DPS. So there's never any equilibrium point at which it makes sense to conserve mana. No interesting choices are presented to the player. They simply run out of mana when they run out and then they get to sit there and wait. Most classes have abilities that return mana that are on longish cooldowns that players need to use at times they decide are most useful.

It occurs to me that the current model of DPS mana as a resource in WoW is a little like auto racing. Mana is the fuel. I don't actually know too much about F1 racing, but it seems like there isn't really a concept of conserving fuel. More speed is always better. The decisions that a driver makes as it relates to fuel seem to mostly be when to take pitstops. Drivers try not to force themselves into taking pitstops at critical points in the race, or when they would not get the full benefit of the pitstop. DPS mana classes, especially mages, are much like that. You have a series of mana-returning cooldowns and you have to pick the best time to use them.

But it's not really a very fun model, any more than watching pitstops during F1 races are fun for fans. It seems a more interesting model is the 'fuel' used by a cyclist or runner. Here there is a concept of conservation, because the human body can burst out extra effort but only for a short time, and doing so exhausts you. So you use your periods of burst wisely, and if they have reserves of energy available, you generally see athletes go into 'burn mode' as they approach the finish line. Periods of burst are more interesting and fun than periods of stopping to recover.

This was actually the basic design of the arcane mage during TBC. They could choose to do more damage but only by spending an inordinately greater amount of mana. They couldn't sustain their high-damage mode for very long. This kind of mechanic is interesting but leads to a few problems. Burst damage is hard to balance in PVP, especially if certain classes have better burst capability. Blizzard balanced the arcane mage by having the burst mode require an uninterrupted series of casts to 'ramp up,' something that is not practical to try in PVP. Also, because of innervate, groups could use a brigade of druids to arrange to keep one mage in constant burn mode, something that is very much contrary to the current raid make-up philosophy. Apparently Blizzard decided it wasn't worth trying to balance it because they heavily nerfed the arcane mage's 'burn' mechanic for WotLK, although they've done a pretty good job of preserving the flavour of it.

Of course, there are other ways to make mana conservation a strategic choice. For example, DPS can have different values at different times. In any multi-phase or multi-mob fight it often pays to pump out more damage at one time or another. The simplest and most common example is bosses that have a "soft enrage" at low health. If the last 10% of the fight is the most dangerous, the DPS should make sure that they have enough mana to blow through it without slowing down, even if it means they need to hold back a bit before then. But for damage dealers though, it's never a fun game choice to 'hold back'. Damage is what they're there to do, and doing less than the most possible is not a fun choice to make, even if it's the right one. So even though the fight might favour burst damage during part of it, mana conservation never really comes into play.

Other options are to give the player other things they can "purchase" with their "currency". The warlock design is good example of this. They can buy mana at the cost of health. So for them mana is essentially a currency they can spend on damage or survivability. This works especially well in PVP where the choice can be very difficult. In most PVE encounters though, it's rarely a real choice. You give up health for mana when you need the mana. You could try to extend that mechanic by having very costly shields that a player could choose to use to, trading damage for survivability. Mages already have this with Mana Shield. And I'll bet no mage ever uses it outside of extreme cases like being focused by Fel Rage in the Bloodboil fight.

Another method is to have the currency be more like an allowance than a fixed starting amount. If players only get so much mana per second, they can choose to spend it in different ways or save it up for later. This is basically the design of "mana" for melee classes who gain resources (energy, rage, or runic power) at much faster rates than mana-users and make decisions constantly about how best to spend it. But I think Blizzard wants to preserve the distinction of the caster classes resource system. They have a "full tank of fuel" at the start of the fight and have to choose how to use it best without running out. I think the arcane mage has been the best attempt at it so far. I would take that idea and run with it. Give every caster a 'burn mode' so that you don't unbalance things by having certain classes excel at shorter fights or burst damage. They don't have to be the exact same thing. Here are some ideas for ways to extend the idea of the 'burn' mechanic that should not overly unbalance PVP:

Mana Blast - 60% base mana - fires a beam of pure mana at the target which ignites after 6 seconds for 3600 damage. Caster must channel the spell without interruption.

A mage mana dump. To balance this, Icy Veins or shields should not count as preventing "interruption". This makes it about as unusable in PVP as pyro without the PoM, especially if the beam is really obvious (which would be cool for PVE.)

Angel of Death - 150% base mana - 3 second cast - You become an angel of death, dealing 50% additional damage to targets below 35% health. Lasts for 60 seconds. Can only be cast in combat.

Here's one for the Shadow Priest. No real PVP application but handy for getting rid of excess mana at the end of a fight. Give it a dark, sinister version of the Angel of Redemption graphic!

Owlkin Rage - Your Moonfire spell increases your haste by 5% when used against targets with less than 50% health. Stacks up to 10 times. Lasts 60 seconds.

Who doesn't love Moonfire spam? It's already kind of a mana dump. It just doesn't do enough damage to ever be worth it. The idea here is to make it a useful ramp-up to doing some serious Starfire spam. It just costs a lot of time and mana to get it up to that point. It's kind of a moonkin version of the old Arcane mana dump. It might not even need the target health limitation to make unusable in PVP.

Totemic Detonation - 100% base mana - Targets one of your totems for detonation. After 15 seconds your totem deals 5000 damage to your current target in Fire, Frost, Nature, or Arcane damage as appropriate to the totem's school.

One for the elemental shaman. I like the idea of setting your own totems alight with sparks and fire. Since totems are trivially easy to kill, and the graphic should be really obvious (and cool!) there's almost no reason to try this in PVP. (Should probably be unusable on Stoneclaw Totem.)

Note that the warlock can't really have a mana dump due to how their resource system works. They already have a working mana model though and don't need any help. I think these all sound pretty fun and would make mana an interesting resource to manage, provided fights are neither too short nor too long. You could burst out mana during critical stages in the fight, which a lot of cases would just be the home stretch. Like a great marathon finish, you'd come sprinting to the finish line, and if you timed it right, be literally exhausted of all your energy when the fight is won.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Will WoW ever patch faster?

Let's take a look at WoW's major content patch schedule over the past little while, shall we?

DateTime betweenPatchContent
2006/12/053.5mo2.0TBC Content: Karazhan, Mag, Gruuls, SSC, TK, MH
2007/9/254mo2.2Voice comm
2008/10/146.5mo3.0WotLK Content: Naxx, OS, EoE

It would probably be fair to remove patch 2.2, which didn't really add new content and count the full 5-and-a-half months from 2.1 until 2.3 as one wait period. It seems terribly quaint now to look back in vanilla WoW and remember people posting tickers on websites to show how long it had been since the last patch when we had to sometimes wait for ungodly amounts of time like THREE MONTHS. Blizzard seems to have pretty much settled into a pattern of 6 months between content patches.

WoW is a huge piece of software, and the code is terribly old as software goes, having been in development for something like 5 years before it shipped. The oldest portions of its codebase could have been written as long ago as 10 years. Old, huge software projects have a lot of things going against them:
  • Incredibly difficult to change something without inadvertently breaking something else
  • Impossible to maintain all the original coders for everything--people maintaining code have to really on documentation and deduction to understand the code
  • Some features simply can't be built without overhauling sections of old code that could not have anticipated future needs
  • Quality Assurance and deployment procedures take more time than the actual development (Don't think that this is what the PTRs are for, either. The PTR effort is a mere fraction of the total QA effort.)

MMOs are doubly difficult because the software is always live. You can never take it offline to do proper load testing or overhauls. You have to work on the fly, continually branching the code for each new feature so you don't accidentally push half-finished pieces of a new feature into the live code. All the branching and merging has to be done very carefully and it all takes an enormous amount of time.

Unlike most people, you will never hear me criticize Blizzard's ability to write and maintain software. Most of the habitual complainers really have no idea how difficult it is to maintain a piece of software the shape and size of WoW. The crap we have to put up with ourselves is but the tiniest tip of the iceberg of crap that gets filtered out by the devs and QA team. The simple fact of the matter is that WoW patches will get harder and harder to produce. Sure, I think Blizzard is telling the truth when they say they are improving their ability to patch faster. Like the Red Queen, they need to be getting faster and faster just in order to maintain the speed they were going during 2.x and keep patches coming out every 6 months.

They also said that they had a pretty good idea exactly what the patches would be for 3.x, that they did not like the long waits in 2.x and were going to spread the content out more evenly. This did not mean content would come faster, but just that they would pace it more evenly. In 2.x, 2-and-a-half entire tiers were 'ready' at launch, even though they required extensive fixing and balancing, and in one case (Solarian) a complete reworking in order to be really done. Then nearly a year-and-a-half elapsed with only 6 new progression bosses added. This time around, I'm pretty sure a great deal of the Ulduar dev work was complete by the time WotLK launched and it was deliberate held back for 3.1.

I think they decided that part of the problem with so few guilds getting to see Naxx 1.0 and Sunwell were that slower guilds were much slower than faster guilds. You could only clear content as fast as your raid was capable of going. And getting to the next tier relied on jumping through several incredibly ridiculous attunement hoops. There were no shortcuts. So guilds that approached it with extreme professionalism could get there much faster than your average "casual hardcore" raiding guild. By spacing out content patches and making them the only bottle-neck (any guild should be easily capable of being adequately geared for Ulduar by the time it arrives) then everyone that really wants to will be able to step into Icecrown and see the great Lich king Arthas. The guilds that mop up the content way before everyone else will be able to work on all the raid achievements while they wait for everyone else to catch up.

I see things probably shaking down about like this:

DateTime betweenPatchContent
2008/10/146.5mo3.0WotLK Content: Naxx, OS, EoE
2009/10/156mo3.2Some side content with maybe part of tier 9
2010/10/156mo4.0Next expansion

See you in 2010.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dual specs part 2

How do you plan on using the dual spec feature once patch 3.1 hits? In a previous post I talked about some of the arguments for and against the feature, and talked a little bit about how I planned to use it. Basically, I generally plan to make my characters' second specs only small variations on their primary specs. I can think of a lot of different ways people will likely make use of the feature though.


Probably the most obvious idea, and no doubt one of the reasons for the feature's very inception, is speccing for both PVE and PVP. This allows you to share in both halves of the game whenever you want, without having to worry about respec costs. Towards the end of TBC when PVE was winding down, a lot of people were doing this because they were bored with PVE and tried some PVP on the side. Some people spent boatloads of gold weekly in so doing. I think Blizzard wanted to make it easier to spend more time in the game doing different things, especially when content patches become further and further apart as they are.

Raiding vs soloing

This one is for the healers and tanks, and is also one of the most obvious uses of dual specs. Healers and tanks have traditionally complained about soloing and grinding slower than their DPS counterparts. Blizzard's answer seems to have been to make soloing and grinding easier and easier, with more and more daily quests that involve no combat at all. Matticus recently had an entire post about dailies like this for healers. There's about 20 of them on WotLK! I think they've gone a long way to making soloing easier on non-DPS classes already, but this'll be handy for a lot of people.

Single-target vs AOE

A lot of people have mentioned something like this. This is one of the only options that might occur to a pure DPS class that really just plays PVE. One spec could be built for maximum DPS on bosses, and one for trash, or whatever multi-target encounters might show up in Ulduar or beyond.

This idea isn't limited to DPS though. Shortly after the feature was announced I speculated on the idea of a boss-tanking spec and an AoE-tanking spec. That would be handy for Sartharion add tanks. Death Knights are especially interesting here since they can have two tanking specs in entirely different trees for different purposes. Along the same line, healers could also have a tank-healing spec and raid-healing spec. Glyph choices in particular would figure in prominently with this type of speccing.

Utility specs

This is one that I can see coming up a lot. Things like having warriors on Malygos bring Improved Spell Reflection or needing extra Divine Guardian paladins for heavy damage phases like Sartharion + 3 drakes. Classes that can move some of these special use abilities into a slightly suboptimal second spec will enjoy an advantage by not having to nerf themselves on every boss just for a little raid utility on one of them.

Specific vs General Purpose

This is kind of a general strategy that rolls all the previous ideas into one. I think a lot of people will have one no-nonsense spec built to do one thing very well, be it progression PVE or arena play. Their second spec could be a catch-all of useful things for a variety of situations. For example, my resto druid might have a straight tree spec for PVE and an alternate healing spec that has a few PVP talents for battlegrounds, a few DPS talents for soloing, and a few odd talent choices that might be effective at single-target healing, something I rarely do but sometimes simply have to (e.g. Patchwerk).

Testing new specs

This will be a handy tool to have for people that like to experiment with different specs or constantly tweak. If you want to try something a little wacky on one of the easier bosses you can, knowing that you can easily switch back into your comfort zone for the harder bosses if you think your latest experiment needs to go back to drawing board.

Are purebreds getting the shaft?

A lot of people have argued that in PVE dual spec proffers a competitive advantage to the 6 hybrid classes that can spec for completely different roles, as opposed to the 4 pure classes (mage, hunter, warlock, rogue). At first this seems reasonable. But clearly there are benefits to dual spec for pure DPS classes as listed above. In fact, hybrids will find it much harder to use their second spec for personal reasons since they have more ways they can benefit their guild in PVE. E.g. A mage will find it a lot easier to dual spec as PVP than a moonkin will. In fact, Rohan argues that the big losers in a dual spec world will be hybrids that primarily DPS since they will be pressured to take a dual spec that can PVE tank or heal.

I don't think either of these concerns are that big of a deal. I'm not sure what purebreds think is going to happen that will cause them to lose a raid spot to a hybrid. Obviously it will be nice to have extra healers for certain fights. One of the examples people often cite is Sunwell where the optimal number of healers could swing from 5-6 on M'uru to 9-10 on Eredar Twins. So let's say as an extreme we need to swing our raid makeups by 2 healers in either direction. If you bring 7 healers normally, you'd want 2 of them to be willing to spec DPS (obviously not a problem) and 2 DPSers willing to spec healing. If your raid doesn't already have at least 2 hybrid DPS classes that can heal in similar gear (shadow priests, elemental shamans, balance druids) then I would point out that hybrids are already statistically underrepresented in your raid and they could use a little competitive advantage. The point is no one's going to bump out a purebred DPS because they want a raid makeup that can switch to 10 tanks and 15 healers because no fight will ever favour such extreme make-ups.

A related concern is that hybrids will be rolling on more loot because they can use it 'one of' their specs. Obviously this will be a matter for guild and raid leaders to decide, but I'm pretty certain there won't be any changes to the way this is customarily done now. Guilds give preference to loot to a player's main raiding spec and PUGs give preference to a player's spec at the time of the raid. The fact that hybrids can make use of off-spec gear a little more easily than they could before won't change that.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The new lifebloom

Recently in the testing platform for new WoW patches, a major change was made to Lifebloom. This has been a troubled spell since it's inception in The Burning Crusade, an attempt to create a very different type of spell that would make druid healing unique. What makes it unique is that it can stack up to 3 times, and provided you can refresh it before it falls off, it continues to tick at triple power, for a fraction of the price. It's a really cool idea but the stacking aspect made it so potentially powerful in the hands of skilled druids that it was nerfed several times since then. Even right up to 3.0 and a final truly killing nerf, it was still druids main heal, able to be rolled on 3-4 tanks to produce a tremendous amount of pure healing per second.

The change note that appeared on the testing realm was:
Lifebloom: Mana cost of all ranks doubled. When Lifebloom blooms or is dispelled, it now refunds half the base mana cost of the spell per application of Lifebloom, and the heal effect is multiplied by the number of applications.
Naturally the druid community was immediately up in arms about touching a spell so sacred and iconic of the resto druid class. I wasn't so concerned because like I say, 3.0 put a nail in its coffin by making it heal for much less than before. It seemed to be the only way Blizzard could think of to make it so it wasn't so powerful when stacked 3 times. A single stack was worthless, and even rolling a triple stack was only really useful in specific situations. Most druids were using it far less than before. But when mana becomes much more scarce in 3.1, lifebloom stacking would begin to look attractive again, because its so incredibly efficient. Rivven can keep a stack going while gaining mana. I haven't tried but I suspect I could keep 2 or 3 up while still breaking even. Each stack is about 1400 healing every second and we have plenty of time to cast other heals on top of those stacks.

So Blizzard has decided to try something completely different. By making it refund mana for only the first 3 applications, it's essentially putting a tax on druids who try to maintain a triple stack. This is the part that got druids upset because it appears to hit us in our bread and butter. Rolling stacks is what defines us.

But few people stopped to talk about the other big change here: the bloom. No one ever thinks about the bloom, because the bloom is... failure. The bloom means your timing was off and you let the stack die. The bloom is the joke of a consolation prize. Except now the bloom stacks as well. So if a double stack falls off it gets a double bloom. And a triple stack causes a triple bloom. A single bloom is upwards of 3k healing, which can crit for closer to 5k. A triple bloom becomes a formidable heal, about as large as any heal a druid has. And Blizzard pointed this out to the crowd of booing druids, saying now you can make the choice of letting the stack bloom. Not all is lost.

Which seemed like a joke to some. What good is a big heal if you have to predict it 10 seconds in the future? But I think what Blizzard is trying to do is make the bloom a useful decision you make. Each time a lifebloom is about to expire, a druid could now look at the tank health and just as they're about to refresh it, if the tank suddenly takes a drop in health, they could do the unthinkable: nothing. Letting the stack bloom would be an immediate heal, just when its needed. The cost of refreshing the stack is relatively minor if you continue to let it bloom whenever the tank could use it. In fact it becomes more expensive to keep it going now. It seems like the ideal situation is to cast it and refresh it only if the tank is topped up, hoping to let it bloom after about 3 applications, give or take. I posted some numbers I came up with on elitistjerks to try and get a handle on it, if anyone is interested in specifics.

I think it's an interesting design change. It's understandable that people get upset when a core ability is nerfed. But in this case it's hard to call it a nerf, because it's really changing the spell completely. I expect the numbers will be tweaked shortly anyways, so rather than worry about the exact healing per second or healing per mana, I think a more interesting question is this. Which takes more skill? Keeping multiple stacks going or accurately deciding when to let a stack expire? Whether it's a nerf or not it's still a unique and interesting type of heal that defines the druid.

P.S. The graphic above is taken from a great comic from Smoosh that gives you an idea where Lifebloom was before all the nerfs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

UI Layout Part 2

Screenshots as promised of my UI redesign over the weekend. I quite liked it during our excellent but unsuccessful 3 drake attempt. For comparison, here is the UI I had last week:

It's ok but there is a lot of wasted space that I was able to clean up. Here's how it looks now in combat:

And here's how it looks out of combat:

You can see how much space around my character has been cleared up while still retaining as much information as before. I'd like to tweak my scrolling text a but too now as well. I'm also trying out GhostPulse to give me better cooldown notification. I didn't get much chance to configure it but it works pretty nice out of the box.

The mods used are all pretty standard. If anyone's curious, here's the list:
  • Satrina's Buff Frames
  • oRA
  • Grid + various plugins
  • Bartender
  • Pitbull
  • Recount
  • Fubar
  • Quartz
  • Deadly Boss Mods
  • Mik's Scrolling Battle Text

Only SBF is a little unusual, and it's one I recommend trying if you haven't.

All in all, it's not a gorgeous piece of art like some people's UI. I aim for functionality over visual fluff. But I'm always looking for new stuff to try. If you have any suggestions for improvements, lemme know.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

UI Layout

Every now and again, I get the urge to rethink the UI I use for WoW. I do this partly because I take the UI pretty seriously, and partly because I find tweaking the UI a lot of fun. It's like a whole little mini-game inside the game! WoW UI designers have a lot going for them. Like with most all Blizzard games, WoW features a very good API for introducing new features. And since there is such a ridiculously large player base, there are a lot of people out there producing UI mods and libraries to use. You can combine, and configure and even modify other peoples work to produce exactly what you personally like.

Initially when the collection of UI mods available was less extensive, I would find things that were similar to what I wanted and then crack open the scripts and edit them to my taste. I was able to get some pretty cool functionality very early before it became a standard part of most any UI nowadays, like player frames that smoothly changed color as health dropped, or spell school indications on the scrolling combat text. But hand-rolling scripts is pretty unnecessary now, and it's a lot of work to try and maintain your scripts through all the patches. Now I just gravitate towards very good mods that feature tons of configuration options as a raw base to work off of. Mods like Pitbull, Grid, and Satrina's Buff Frames are good examples.

My current UI layout is the product of lots of tweaks and trial and error. I've basically followed these principles:
  • make sure your character and immediate surroundings are always clear and in focus
  • put more important UI elements nearer the center of the screen
  • as much as possible, have one consistent UI that works for all characters and all roles
  • keep the screen clean and have elements disappear when they have no immediate value

I've spent a lot of time on keybinds and on finding good mods that meet my needs. But I realize that my basic layout could also use a bit of work. So I decided to really sit down and analyze how the UI is laid out on the screen. First I looked at my first principle: keep your character and surroundings clear. I created a mock-up of the screen showing about where the character would be and then tried to decide exactly where the most important parts of his 'surroundings' were.

Here I've decided that you want to see out in front and to the sides of your character. Whats behind you is not really important, so long as you can see your feet clearly. Remembering that my zoom level can vary a lot, I tried to give some play to the bottom so that where my 'feet' are could vary.

Next I took the second principle: place important elements near the center of the screen. I laid out all the basic elements that I have in my layout using nondescript boxes that I could move around just like a floor plan. I needed a lot more boxes to get everything than I would've imagined when I started! I didn't even try to get things like combat text, extra action bars, or status bars, and it still took 24 boxes to layout the basic elements. I tried to let the color and thickness of the outlines indicate the relative importance of each box. The layout below is the one I am currently using.

Looking at this I realize I've followed a few conventions that people have just gotten used to that don't make much sense. My combat log still sits where it is by default, taking up a lot of space even though I rarely look at it. I have Recount and various log analysis tools for that. I still need to see it, but I could make it a lot smaller. Castbars sit under the frame of the player they're attached to, just as they are in all player frame mods by default. However, they're a little hard to see since they are pushed right up against the target frames, and because I need to make them pretty thin to squeeze them in. These are way more important than I've given them credit my their placement.

What's going on over on the left is a bit of a problem too. The raid frames overlap the pet bars and target debuffs. The reason for this is that only my healer needs raid frames in this central position. And healers can't have pets and don't put debuffs up... except when they do. Sometimes I throw in a bit of DPS while healing and it's annoying not being able to see how long I have on moonfire or faerie fire. And in WotLK vehicles abound, which use the pet frames. So for example in Malygos phase 3, I can't see or target my dragon. I actually have to quickly grab and move my raid frames out of the way at the end of phase 2 to do so. I realize that my healer is going to need raid frames in a more prominent place than other characters, but I wanted a more elegant approach. So I tried to think of what elements would be more important to a non-healer that should take this real estate. There are two such elements: target debuffs and threat meters. Both tanks and DPS characters need to keep a constant eye on these, whereas healers only need to glance at them occasionally. So I should layout these in such a way that I can swap them. This is my only concession to my third principle: keep the UI consistent for all characters. Everything else is generic enough that it has about the same importance to all characters.

The area marked "important cooldowns" is actually a combination of Bartender and Satrina's Buff Frames that show the most important cooldowns and buff timers. It actually takes up more space than this since it can grow, but I realize that it is not laid out very efficiently and wastes some of the space at the bottom that isn't really used.

Debuffs I've placed right beside my character because I wanted them to be prominent. However in practice I hardly notice them and I think it's because the area I'm usually focused on is to the left and below my character, and these are on the opposite side. So i decided to move these over and make them grow upwards so I would be more likely to spot them as they appear. I'd even like to improve on this and make new debuffs pulse or flash or something, but I don't know of any mod that can do that. Any suggestions?

Moving blocks around my little example layout like this made me realize why a lot of people tend towards what I call a letterbox layout where they black out the entire bottom or top of the screen and fill the area with UI elements. Once you have a lot of blocks you want to fit efficiently in to a small space you start to tile them out. However I don't like the letterbox style because it violates my fourth principle: free up space when you don't need it. When I enter or leave combat, or join or leave a raid, I have various UI elements appear or disappear as I need and free up space to see the game world. I like it like this so I have tried to tile my UI elements out but leave it so they can fade out or disappear and still look decent. The finished product does look kind of letterboxy, but while just hanging out in Dalaran, nearly all those boxes disappear or fade out to leave the game world visible.

So here's what I ended up with.

It's not a huge change. Like I say, my UI has gone through a lot of iterations so what I have I basically like. But there were a lot of tweaks made to try and improve it. By laying out the elements directly below my character a bit better I was able to free up just a bit more valuable space directly below my character's feet. I was able to get more stuff out of the way up top to get a clearer view into the distance. I've given castbars prime real estate. It should be much more recognizable when a boss starts a cast. I may even put focus target castbars up there somewhere if I find I need them.

When I actually tried to put the layout into effect, I found that by clearing up some space, I was even able to make important elements a little larger, or put a little more information on than I had before.

Next I'll try it out and see how I like it and if I need to tweak it bit. Then I'll get some screenshots up to see how the entire design process plays out.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Healing in first person view

A couple nights ago I had a dream. Like a lot of people often do I'm sure, I had a gaming dream. I was playing WoW and doing a raid on some boss I'd never seen before. I was healing and the rest of the raid was spread out around the boss in various positions. I woke up and had the dream fresh in my mind, so I was quick to notice something unusual about it.

I wasn't using raid frames.

In the dream, the HP of each raid member was clearly visible in the game display, and each player's nameplates was perfectly easy to click. I had previously considered Ghostcrawler's comments about improving nameplates for healing and decided that try as Blizzard might, no serious healer would ever use the nameplates for healing. They simply lacked precision. Suddenly I began to doubt that position. In the dream, the nameplates didn't jump around the screen when players got close to each other. It occurred to me that it would not be hard to code the nameplates to have a little more 'weight' as it were, so they could not simply blink around the screen when they ran out of space, but instead would slide out of the way at a fixed max speed when they needed to. Players that were behind me or off to the side still had their nameplates on the game window, with little arrows to indicate the direction they were.

Yes, I thought, that could all work in such a way that healers could look up from the raid UI and see the actual fight. I started adding buff icons, MT indicators and out-of-range styles in my imaginary setup. But the sober light of morning quickly revealed the problem with this model. In a first-person game, the direction you are facing is always 'forward'. When you turn, as you will inevitably need to in a fight of any complexity at all, the entire set of name plates would spin around with you. It wouldn't be good as a healer to have to quickly turn around to avoid a Bad Thing™ and then let the tank die because you couldn't locate his spinning nameplate fast enough.

Nameplate targeting only makes sense if you have some control over which way is forward. You could have a view mode that fixes your camera in a certain direction. (Just like it does in WoW if you hold the left mouse button while keyboard turning.) But it would immediately become confusing to use movement keys where 'forward' was no longer forward. You could then replace the typical WASD style key meanings with keys that move up, down, left, and right with respect to the camera, rather than to your character. Then the whole thing might make sense. But at this point, you no longer have a first person view game. You have a standard third person, three-quarter view. (Think Mario64.) And I just think that's too much of a change, even if it were a temporary camera mode you could switch in and out of.

So I'm back to giving up on the idea of getting rid of raid frames. However what I notice interesting in GC's original post now was that better nameplates was not the primary way he suggested freeing healers from the UI. The first thing he mentioned was "throwing larger heals more rarely". I hadn't really understood where he was going with this until I re-read the thread this week where he expounded on the regen nerf in 3.1. I was so focused on the numbers he provided, I hadn't noticed the reasoning (actually explained better by Thorene halfway down.) If heals hit less often, then priests and druids would never run out of mana because we could exploit our various OOFSR tricks to regen infinite mana. So it's less of an overall nerf as it is a preemptive balance change to make shamans and paladins viable in future encounters that feature "larger heals more rarely". I still don't understand how druids are supposed to be competitive in this new world though. Nothing could describe the opposite of druids better than "rare large heals."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dual specs

Optimus PrimeThe dual spec feature of WoW announced way back at BlizzCon 2008 has been receiving a lot of attention lately as it comes closer to reality. Don't be fooled by how popular the feature is among the player base into thinking that this is a hands-down great concept. A lot of players have been clamoring for free, unlimited respecs. But this doesn't mean it would be a good idea for Blizzard or the game. I think dual specs are an interesting compromise between competing business interests. On one hand you want to spread your content out over time, and allowing characters to access all the various talent designs quickly and easily makes it more likely that they will tire of the game sooner. On the other hand Blizzard has created two very different and compelling games in WoW, PVE and PVP, but through the talent design has made it so you sort of have to choose which one you will play. So from a business perspective it makes sense to allow players to get to play both games if it means they will play more than they would otherwise, provided they won't burn through all your content faster than they would otherwise. So I think that kind of reasoning gets us pretty directly to the dual spec idea in its current form. You wouldn't want to open up unlimited free respecs since that would make it likely that players will just exhaust all the play possibilities for a given class without ever really feeling vested in one style or the other.

At an extreme, imagine if max-level players had the option to change their class just by visiting a trainer. How many hours of alt-leveling would players forgo? If players simply have no interest in leveling another character and it came down to a decision between "re-classing" your character or not playing at all, then it might actually make sense to allow this possibility from a business perspective. But they have to be really careful with how far they go with this. If players don't feel vested in a character and don't identify with the character, they're much more likely to get bored and abandon it. The leveling process is the means by which a player connects with their character and becomes emotionally connected with it. To a degree this applies to specs as well and players would feel a little less vested in their character if they weren't able to identify themselves as a "protection-specced tank" or a "moonkin" and were instead just another warrior or druid. Incidentally, I actually fully expect Blizzard to make it much easier to level up alts as we go, to make it more likely that players will try out new characters. It shouldn't be as easy as visiting a trainer, but it should be a little easier than playing through hours of quests they've already done. The heirloom items were a great addition, and I think they could take that concept much further.

One player, Lhivera, who was very well known in the mage community quit the game last year, probably for several reasons, but calling the dual spec feature the "final straw". He argued mainly that it breaks suspended disbelief, likening it to an accountant suddenly deciding that he wants to be a baseball player. He felt that for the sake of a game he was willing to suspend his disbelief through a lot of things, and this was just too far for him to go. Of course he realizes he's not being forced to respec, but makes the very good argument that any feature that provides an advantage for free would put you at a competitive disadvantage if you chose not to use it.

I have trouble following him all the way on this point. I feel like I had to suspend a lot of disbelief already just by being able to respec at all. Believing that I can pay a guy to allow me to forget everything I've trained myself to do and instantly learn a whole other set of skills is a lot to ask. It seems a small thing to additionally say I can do it with an item as opposed to talking to a certain person. He got a lot more sympathy from me when he talked about identifying with his character as a frost mage. That is what he is, and it would break his feeling of identity if he could casually flip between being a frost mage and a fire mage. I personally play my characters with a strong sense of identity. My warrior is a tank, and my druid is a healer. Although they have dabbled in variations that took them partway down different talent trees, they have never abandoned their primary spec. If I wanted a DPS character, I would much rather level another character with that intent than change my spec.

Lhivera argued that the trees should all be competitive in all aspects of the game, and that players should be required to stick with a certain talent tree, giving respecs a cooldown and a greater cost. He confused me here a bit by acknowledging that there should be a difference between say a frost PVE spec and a frost PVP spec, and the same time as saying respecs should be inconvenient and infrequent. I kind of think he was thinking of some kind of system where you could respec within your tree much easier than changing your main tree completely. I'm almost certain the dev team at Blizzard talked about something like this and abandoned it as being cumbersome and complicated. However I don't see why Lhivera himself couldn't have used the dual spec that way and still retained his frost identity, with two very different frost specs for different purposes. I personally will most likely use it that way. My warrior will probably have a no-nonsense boss-tanking Protection spec, and a more DPS-heavy, PVP, trash-tanking Protection spec. My druid will play with his current standard tree spec and maybe another healing spec more focused on healing touch, perhaps even down to Dreamstate with enough DPS talents for some decent soloing speed. In both cases their dual spec would change their style of performing their role, but not their actual role.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mana regen changes for 3.1 = Druid nerf

Amongst all the class change previews for WoW patch 3.1 was a lengthy post explaining the changes being made to mana regen to help make mana conservation more important.
* Regeneration while not casting (outside of the “five second rule”) will be decreased. We think that (1) the ability to cast heal over time spells and then sit back and (2) benefitting from a clearcasting proc that also gets you out of the five second rule both provide too much mana regeneration, even over short time periods.
Ouch. This hits me right where it hurts. It's difficult to imagine a paragraph that says 'druids are OP' more strongly without actually using the word 'druid'. While it's true that priests also have HoTs and clearcasting, the style of healing that uses clearcasting to get outside the FSR seems to have gone out of style for priests back at 70. The druid alone has the means to really exploit clearcasting (Omen of Clarity in our case) and multiple stacking HoTs to produce non-stop healing while outside the FSR. On top of that we already had strong incentive to stack spirit because of the tree's conversion of spirit into spellpower and innervate working off of spirit. So all that spirit really kicks in if we dance around OoC to get outside the FSR.

On one hand, it's something of a vindication for me. I had been reading EJ resto druid threads and was surprised not to see more discussion of this style of healing and explaining why I thought it was so powerful. I know that the current content is so easy that it doesn't really matter what style of healing you use, but back when I tried Malygos or Sartharion for the first few times, I leaned heavily on this technique and fully expected to again in 3.1 once content became harder. I had been amassing spirit gear, gemming and enchanting spirit, and collecting spirit consumables. So it's sort of nice to see that the technique that I had thought was so powerful that it was semi-exploitative was apparently at the top of Blizzard's list of things that were too powerful. Of course on the other hand... damn. I will need to redo a lot of my gear now.
* To make this change, we are reducing mana regeneration granted by Spirit across the board. However we are also boosting the effects of talents such as Meditation that increase regeneration while casting. The net result should be that your regeneration while casting will stay about the same, but your not-casting regeneration will be reduced. This change will have little impact on dps casters, since they are basically always casting.
Bam. And there's the other shoe. Huge nerf to me and my chosen way of life.
* The specific talents and abilities being boosted are: Arcane Meditation, Improved Spirit Tap, Intensity, Mage Armor, Meditation, Pyromaniac and Spirit Tap. Yes this makes these “mandatory” talents even more mandatory, if such a thing is possible.
Interesting that most of these talents are for DPS casters. Only two of these abilities are healing talents: Intensity for druids and Meditation for holy priests. Note carefully that this does not mean priests and druids are being buffed. These buffs are compensations for the fact that we have a lot of spirit on our gear that's getting nerfed. But note as well that the grand-daddy of all regen-while-casting abilities is not mentioned here: Innervate. Phaelia points out that this is a big nerf to Innervate and hopes that it's only not mentioned here as an oversight, an opinion which is sheer naïveté. This is a druid nerf.
* Since paladins rely less on Spirit as a mana-regeneration stat, we have to address them in other ways. We don’t want to change Illumination or Replenishment. However, we are going to increase the healing penalty on Divine Plea from 20% to 50%. Divine Plea was originally intended to help Protection and Retribution paladins stay full on mana. It should be a decision for Holy paladins, not something that is automatically used every cooldown.
Interesting that paladins are singled out here. There's another class that 'relies less on Spirit' that isn't mentioned here at all: Resto shamans. You guys are relatively untouched by these changes, a net buff. I guess you've had about as much punishment as you had coming to you for your god-like status at the end of TBC. Look forward to seeing shamans catch back up in Ulduar. Also discipline priests are sort of on the outside of all this. They do not favour spirit and have fewer clearcasting procs (no Surge of Light). Expect to see even more priests take a trip on the Discipline side.
* In addition, we are also changing the way Spiritual Attunement works. In situations with a large amount of outgoing raid damage, as well as in PvP, this passive ability was responsible for more mana regeneration than we would like. We want to keep the necessary benefit it grants to tanking Protection paladins, while making it less powerful for Holy paladins in PvP or raid encounters with a lot of group damage.
That's interesting. I wouldn't have thought of that as being a noticeable amount of regen.
* We are also taking a close look at clearcasting procs themselves. One likely outcome is to change them to an Innervate-like surge of mana so that the net benefit is the same, but healers won’t shift to out-of-casting regeneration so often.
Interesting... Umm... so it's like Innervate instead of out-of-casting regen. But Innervate is out-of-casting regen. I assume this means it will be like Innervate in the sense of multiplying your regen, but not in the sense of letting your spirit kick in. If so, this is aimed squarely at spirit-stacking druids. What really bothers me about this change is not the nerf so much as the fact that clearcast proccing was a very fun style of healing and required a lot of skill. You had to carefully watch your procs on top of everything else you had to watch and make split-second decisions on how to use each proc and to determine if you could safely get out of the FSR or not, and for how long. To really get the most out of it, it also meant that you had strong incentive to melee something in between casts. And you can't tell me there's anything much more fun than hitting a boss with tree branches.
* We balance around the assumption that even 10-player groups have someone offering Replenishment. To make this even easier on players we are likely to offer this ability to additional classes, as well as make sure that existing sources of Replenishment are more equitable.
So far Replenishment has been additionally given to frost mages and warlocks (practically all specs I believe). This should mean that almost any group of 10 or 25 will have near 100% replenishment uptime. If the basic mechanic isn't changing, I expect this will create a strong shift from spirit to int for regen stats for priests and druids. Of course, priests get an additional benefit from int that druids do not. You may however see a resurrection of the nearly dead Dreamstate build, though I doubt it will be more than a passing fad.
* These changes are ultimately being done to bring the different healing classes more in line with each other as well as to give the encounter team more leeway when designing encounters, who can balance with these new mana regeneration numbers in mind. In a world with infinite healer mana, the only way to challenge healers is with increasingly insane amount of raid damage, so that global cooldowns become the limiting factor since mana fails to be. An example is the Eredar Twins in late Sunwell. We weren’t necessarily happy with that model, and this change hopefully allows us to move towards giving healing a more deliberate and thoughtful pace rather than frenetic spam.
Without directly saying it, I interpret "more in line" to mean "nerf druids, buff shamans". What will raid encounters look like now for healing? If we see them move more towards Blizzard's suggestion of fewer, larger hits as seems to be implied here, then druids will be the big losers since we have no competitive way to deal with large spikes of damage.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Healing overhaul Part 2

Last week in Part 1, I wrote some ideas about how to address two commonly cited problems with the healing game in WoW: Healers are too focused to their UI, and not enough on the game world. There are a few other issues that seem to come up a lot. Tobold recently summarized one well, making probably the shortest post he's ever made, saying only the following:

The fundamental problem of healing

* If I heal 1 second too early, my spell is wasted.
* If I heal 1 second too late, we wipe.

It's an interesting statement, rife with implications. It's a bit of an exaggeration of course. Tanks don't normally go from full HP to dead in 2 seconds. But healers are in a unique situation here, and the need for such careful timing and vigilance are part of what make healing less enjoyable for some. A possible solution is also immediately implied: some way to make a heal that lands early still count for something. Before getting into that, I'd like to point out another fundamental problem with healing in MMOs that's somewhat related.

When working on new content, a raid must carefully balance its healing, damage and tanking to achieve the best result, because their second-to-best effort will be a wipe. Just a bit short on healing means the tank goes down or too much DPS dies to beat the timer. Too little DPS means the same thing. Of course once the encounter is beaten and the same group picks up more gear the fight becomes much easier. The healers that struggled to keep everyone up initially now find it easier because they have better longevity and throughput. But the tank also has better gear, meaning they have to heal less. And the DPS also has better gear, shortening the fight and meaning they have to heal for a shorter period. So they have the gear to heal for greater and greater amounts and longer and longer periods, but need to heal for less and less. The result is that the top end guilds usually bring extra healers initially and drop them as they move into farm mode. This is frustrating if you're one of the extra healers. But it's also frustrating to get better and better gear as a healer and to not really get to make use of it until the next tier of content. Note that tanks had the same problem in TBC, before Blizzard's "tanking overhaul" fixed it. Their best gear gave too much mitigation and not enough threat to use on farm content. It's frustrating to get new gear and not get to use it 95% of the time. DPS gets to feel their progression with each new upgrade. They get to slap each other on the ass with each new record crit they land. But healers pass a threshold and then are kind of just doing risk management. Healers almost never talk about record crit heals, because by the time we get the gear for them, we are almost never in a situation where they get to land.

So here's an idea. Let's make overheals count for something. If we give each player some buffer health, an overheal can get saved up even if it takes them above 100%, sort of like Living Seed. We have to make this count for less than a regular heal tho, or else we're just moving the problem further down. So let's make the buffer health over 100% decay over time, bringing them back to 100%. The higher you save up HP, the faster it decays. We could say that characters have a hard cap of 200%, over which any heals truly are overheals. But at 190%, it's practically on overheal too, because the health drop from 200% to 190% would be almost instant. At 110%, health would drop towards 100% in a few seconds, enough time to be a useful buffer against the next hit but not so useful that you'd want to try and keep everyone way up above 100% constantly. Unless you overgear the content and have such good regen as a healer that you have lots of excess mana and can afford to keep everyone up above 100%. And here's where your over-geared healers can feel useful again. Besides providing everyone with extra buffer health, let's also make all that additional health count for extra damage. If you have enough mana regen to keep your star mage up above 150% health during Heroism, he will get a 50% boost to his damage. Now the freak 15k crit heals actually mean something. Your mage will notice some huge hit land at the same time, and now the healer gets to partake in the ass-slapping as well.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Healing overhaul

Blizzard design representative Ghostcrawler has made several comments beginning from around the WotLK beta about overhauling the healing mechanics in some fundamental way similar to how tanking was changed with WotLK.

To help illustrate what I think needs to change with healing, let me describe the following hypothetical encounter:

Your party enters a room with a dragon lying injured in the middle of the room. It is a powerful dragon with near god-like abilities, but near death. When you talk to him, you begin the encounter. Ghouls are raised from corpses lying littered around the entire room. They appear in random places, lots and lots of them. Most of them have very little health and immediately begin consuming the corpses around them to regain health. If any of them reach 100% health, they cast corpse explosion on a single player, instantly killing them. This is the only damage the raid takes. DPS must quickly run around killing them off before any of them gain full health. Occasionally an elite ghoul will also appear among them that starts with more health, regains health faster and also has a larger total health bar, requiring heavy single-target DPS. Meanwhile the dragon in the middle of the room must be healed to regain his powers. He has several million HP though and must be healed to full before 5 minutes or the ghouls begin spawning too fast to deal with. Once the dragon reaches 100% health he casts a powerful spell that destroys all the ghouls, ending the encounter.

Does this encounter sound familiar? It should. Does it sound fun? In particular does the DPS or healing sound fun? (For simplicity's sake, I've left tanking out of it.) Now imagine a variation that involves making some mechanical changes.

All DPS abilities for this encounter become 40-yard omni-directional abilities. Even rogues can target practically any mob they want and 1-1-1-1-1-2 away without moving or turning. Also the Blizzard UI allows any enemy mob to register as a target bar on the UI (sort of like Proximo) something which is currently not possible with the API. This means that the DPS doesn't need to target the mobs from the game screen, but can target them from the UI. To compensate for the ease and speed with which DPS can dish out damage this way, we will also scale up the difficulty, making the ghouls spawn faster and gain health much faster. Now does the DPS sound more or less fun in this variation? Much less in my opinion. I no longer need to move very much or be aware of the game screen.

Now what's the point of this hypothetical encounter? This is actually just a basic tank and spank encounter, similar to countless encounters in many MMOs. All I've done is turned it on its head. Damage is healing and healing is damage. The healers need to heal a single boss mod to 100% rather than DPSing it down to zero. Conversely the DPS need to deal with small and large amounts of health gains on multiple targets, preventing any from reaching 100%. This is exactly what the healers do in a typical encounter, but in reverse. The second variation used mechanics changes to make the DPS role match more exactly what a healer currently does. But the first version actually sounds more fun, zipping around catching ghouls as they spawn, alternating between AoE and single-target damage depending on the situation. It's a bit like the adds in Vashj, commonly cited as one of the best encounters of all time.

Every player that rolls a healer learns pretty early that heals are omni-directional and long range, and that it is much quicker to target using the party or raid interface than to target in the game screen. They might think it's a good thing when they discover this, imagining how frustrating it would be to have to find and manually target people taking damage. But I think this would only be a frustrating mechanic because people take enough damage that healers need to react almost instantly to prevent casualties. If the typical damage received was much smaller it obviously wouldn't be as hard.

I think TBC actually took the healing a bit in the wrong direction. I think the same thinking that led to long-distance, omni-directional as a fun mechanic that eases frustration further led to so-called 'smart' heals that target multiple players and heal based on who needs it the most. The problem is that the UI makes healing so easy that in order to make it challenging the damage needs to be ramped up to ridiculous proportions. Instead of freeing the healer up from his UI, the damage levels require them to be glued to the UI, spamming their beloved smart heals. I think maybe Blizzard is starting to turn around on this issue, as evidenced by the new 6 second cooldown on CoH and WG.

I think it might be interesting to go even further with the changes. Imagine removing and/or heavily nerfing most of the 40-yard omni-directional heals and giving healers some new powerful heals that require specific positioning. Some might require melee range. Some might be PBAoE, like holy nova and tranquility, but with much smaller ranges. Some might be short-range frontal cone heals. Would it be much harder and more frustrating to heal? Sure. But now tone down the damage and on top of that give healers some more ways to zip around like nearly all the DPS classes have and I think you've got an interesting new healing paradigm. Healers would be watching the game more than the UI. Healers would need to move constantly. My favourite fights have been the ones that require me to heal and move a lot (Archimonde might be the best example) and I've seem many people agree. Healers would feel closer to their charges, and less attached to the symbols on a raid frame. It might be a small thing too, but for me less damage feels a bit more realistic. The tank's health bar constantly going up and down from near-full to near-death every second with me magically repairing damage by watching all these bars kinda breaks immersion a little bit for me.

Now there are a few reasons that this would not be a simple change. For example, it's impossible to quickly target a single player on the game screen when many players can overlap each other in space. But it's possible to imagine game design changes to overcome them. It will be interesting to see what new directions the WoW healing overhaul takes us.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The guild as a social contract

One of the most interesting things you observe in an MMO as opposed to single-player gaming is how the rules of the game inform the culture of the players. If the best loot in an MMO was available from solo quests there would not be nearly so many guilds, and the ones that you did see would be far less structured and more social. But since the best loot is obtainable only from 25-man raids, guilds exist (ignoring PVP in this example). This part is obvious, but the game design decisions of how loot and dungeons work all contribute to tendencies in your player culture.

There are a couple interesting posts about loot and fairness. Matticus tells about one situation that makes him question loot systems:

A paladin decides to take a break from raiding until new raid content because he already has all his gear from the current raid content, ahead of everyone else.

And Gevlon the Greedy Goblin defends the paladin's decision and tells of one of his own:

A player decides to quit his guild after an extended break in raiding due to holidays.

How do both these players make you feel? Is it fair for them to leave in these cases? Both situations incurred the disdain of the two players' guildmates, and spawned lots of comments from posters voicing their disapproval.

There is something very basic going on here when people feel an instinctive negative reaction to these situations. We are a social species. The rules of the 'game' we have played for thousands of years as a species are similar to the rules of an MMO. We can't do as well individually as we can as a group. A guy living in a shack hunting his own food won't do as well as someone in an organized village. We need families and communities in order to supply us with the best security (it's easier to defend a city than a shack), food (it's easier to grow and store food for a large group than for one person) and education (it's more efficient to train groups than individuals) and so on. We all know instinctively that we depend on the group we are a part of for our own welfare, and that we can all contribute to the group effort as individuals. Individually, one guy can decide that since everyone else is contributing to the group effort, he might as well sit back and enjoy the benefits of everyone else's work and secretly do nothing. Sure, everyone wants to get the most for the least effort. But we immediately realize that the entire thing breaks down if everyone decides to cheat the system. The village burns down and we're all living in our individual shacks like idiots. So what do we do? We all enter into a social contract, one so basic and universal that it rarely needs expressed in its most fundamental form: Do your fair share to help the group and the group will help you. If anyone tries to do less than their fair share, we immediately react negatively. It's a fundamental instinct. Some psychologists believe that cheater-detection is hard-wired into our human brains. Try this simple test on yourself to see if you agree.

This all manifests itself in an MMO like WoW. A guild is like a village. We enter into a guild because we want the best loot available and we need a group to get it. By doing so, we enter into a social contract so basic it rarely gets actually written in a guild charter: the guild will help you provided you do your fair share. When someone brazenly breaks this contract, such as ninja looting and gquitting, we react with immediate disgust so powerful it manifests itself physically in some people. We feel the same way every time someone isn't "pulling their weight" by being prepared with consumables, farming for crafted gear they could use, or showing up for raids on time. When someone tries to do less than the group but expects the same share of the reward, we instinctively feel negatively.

The two situations above are a little less clear-cut than a ninja looter. There are several factors in play and we might ask for more information before passing judgment. In the case of the paladin, he was the only holy paladin in his guild, which is not uncommon. Blizzard's current loot itemization means that holy paladins are the only spec out of 30 that want the gear they do. They are the only spec with such a unique set of gear choices and, presumably to avoid frustration, Blizzard has designed dungeons to distribute their gear way more than 3% of the time. So naturally the holy paladin will tend to gear up faster than his raidmates. (This is more generally true of tanks and healers.) So I think it's fair to feel that the paladin didn't hold up his part of the implicit contract: that the guild would raid the current tier of content as a group for gear. He didn't get geared up faster due to exceptional effort on his part, but due instead to the design of the game. He should not expect others to put in more effort than him for the same reward, which is what he's doing by taking a break and effectively saying "Thanks for the gear and good luck."

With Gevlon gquitting, I think it's unfair to decide after having got a lot of gear from your guild raids that the raiding schedule of the guild is suddenly not for you. However if things change within the guild and their schedule is consistently unfavourable for you, how long do you wait and how much effort do you personally contribute to trying to improve the situation from within? I think everyone accepts that there has to be a limit. Everyone's probably got a different opinion on that. I do find it interesting how often someone is judged by how they act in their final days as a guild member, once they have neared that point where the decision is made to leave. Someone who waits for one last piece of gear on which to "blow their DKP" before leaving will be judged much more harshly than someone who deliberately avoids taking gear, knowing that he is likely to leave. It's a question of whether you've "paid up" when the contract period ends.

It's interesting to see how a guild will structure their DKP system and guild rules around avoiding these situations. I think guilds would create better rules and structure if they start out by thinking of the guild as a community with a simple social contract.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Healing meters

Are healing meters useless? Ulkesshern seems to think so. I think he's taken a pet peeve here and overdone it. I agree that meters can be misleading, especially in the hands of someone unfamiliar with healing who glances at the meters after the fight and uses them as a barometer of skill. But he seems to be saying that the meters are completely useless and should never be looked at, except perhaps in extreme situations.

Now I deal with numbers a lot professionally and often come up against these 2 extremes of thought. One side looks at numbers and sees "big" and thinks "good" then sees "bigger" and thinks "better", without taking any context into account. A little information is dangerous, as they say. But the other extreme is to acknowledge that numbers in isolation are difficult to interpret, but then to basically throw ones hands up and say "well those could mean anything" and dismiss them as useless. Numbers are what they are. If you're unsure of the context, then yes they're meaningless. But the proper response should not be to dismiss them but to try and understand the context and use that to divine their meaning. Both extremes are the easy ways out and the path to true understanding, as usual, involves effort.

What do you think? Are meters ever useful? How much and when? I'd like to address his 4 reasons why healing meters are useless and offer my thoughts on the other side of the issue.

More Healing does not equal Better Healers
This is kind of a scarecrow argument. It's a very good point that healing needs scale inversely and very quickly with your raid's gear level and this will probably be the subject of a future post. But I don't think anyone looks at healing done on a fight and compares it to healing done in previous weeks and says "Our healers are doing less healing and are therefore getting worse." In fact I'll bet hardly anyone remembers the numerical amount of healing from fight to fight. In pretty much all cases, people are looking at the comparitive healing amounts from person to person.

Situational Situations are Situational
This is very true. Different healers can be assigned to different targets and types of damage and this will probably be a bigger factor in the meters than their individual skill. But that doesn't mean the meters are useless. At the very least, we can compare healers of the same class in the same situation and make meaningful comparisons. But even in differing situations, we learn a lot from healing done. Say you have 2 healers each healing a different tank and Healer A is doing twice the healing of Healer B. Assuming neither tank was at risk, we can safely say that Healer B should probably be assisting somewhere else in addition to his tank, either with another tank or with some extra raid healing. Every single class has a way to spread heals to more than one target without losing efficiency (gaining efficiency actually in nearly all cases). At this point if I were really interested in improving the healing group, I might even go into the breakdown of heals by target and see if someone was being too restrictive in who they healed. It's true that certain fights require healers be separated by too much distance to really heal anyone else. And perhaps all the meters can tell you then is how to better allocate your zone coverage.

Or, say you have 2 healers both on raid healing and Healer A is doing twice the healing of Healer B. Assuming no one was at serious risk of dying, this usually tells me that Healer A has got a consistently faster reaction time than Healer B. Looking at the overhealing and the breakdown might tell you if Healer B is coming in 0.1 sec too late every time, or if they simply got frustrated that Healer A was beating them to the punch every time and gave up, or even if Healer B was simply choosing the wrong types of heals with which to 'beat' Healer A. Incidentally, this is probably also telling you that you have more healers than necessary. This is usually a necessary evil for most guilds at some point, but it's still useful information if say next week, one of your healers and can't make it and you need to decide whether to replace them with another healer or a DPS class. You can bet however, that later when you do a harder fight that does need lots of healing, the fact that one of your healers is a little slower than the others will be important. A good raid leader will put them in a less critical position for the fight, and perhaps even look for a replacement in the future.

Some Classes outclass Classes
This is a similar argument to the previous. Just as situations give healers an advantage, so do class abilities. This is very true. But it's no reason to throw up your hands and discard the numbers. Again, at the very least we can compare healers of the same class to our benefit. We can also try and understand why some classes are better than others on the meters and use that knowledge to our benefit. Classes with healers that land on several players for small amounts over time should always do more healing that healers that tend to hit single players with large heals, because pound for pound HoTs are less useful than direct heals. As a druid healer, I should be doing more healing than the paladins because my heals are much less likely to save someone from a sudden damage spike than theirs are. Sure, I could switch to a glyphed Healing Touch druid and try to compete at that style of healing, but I've decided my strength as a druid is to lay a blank of HoTs out that will free up the paladins from having to sweat the small stuff so they can land there big tank-saving heals. The most useful type of healing, even better than direct healing, is a kind that doesn't show up as healing at all: absorbed damage. Pound for pound, 10k damage absorption is way more useful than a 10k heal. This is why discipline priests are always low on the meters. But digging a little deeper into the report, you can probably find the PW:S casts and come to a better understanding of what the numbers are really saying.

I will say this: If every healer is firing on all cylinders and playing to their strengths then in a reasonably difficult fight the healing meters should not show a huge variation between the top and bottom healers.

I'm going to add another "objection" here to healing meters that I think is a much better argument against them that he surprisingly did not bring up.

Meters can be padded
A skilled player who decides he wants to "beat" the meters can do tricks to bring his total healing higher. Some of the common things you can do are: using fast blanket heals way more than is efficient or necessary; pre-healing or pre-hotting someone who might be about to take damage; learning the habits of your fellow healers and trying to beat them to the punch on whoever you predict that they're about to heal. There are other sneaky tricks, some more devious or downright dangerous. But during trash or easy fights, its fun for healers to play these little game of trying to outdo each other. And I'll tell you why. Each of these little skills that lets you pad the numbers artificially in an easy fight will potentially save you in a truly wipe-threatening situation. So you've learned to hot up everyone that might take damage to pad the meters? Well guess what. Now it's Sapphiron time, and everyone is taking damage and you had better know which kinds of hots and how many you can most efficiently spread around. You've learned to predict what your fellow healers are about to do? Great, because the DPS just pulled 2 extra trash groups and now the shit's about to hit the fan, and if you guess what everyone around you is about to do, you might just come out of this alive.

Trash and easy fights are when good healers hone their skills and reaction times, playing little games with themselves and each other. When push comes to shove, those skills will save the raid.

Meters are not infallible
More hand-waving. "I've seen variations in meters before so how can anyone say if they're correct? Might as well ignore them." No. If the meters don't look right to you, pull up the underlying numbers until you find out where they're wrong. WWS allows to actually inspect the entire log the report was built from, and Recount allows a good deal of drilling. If something is out of whack, there's an explanation. These numbers aren't just pulled out of the ether. I agree, things go wrong all the time. A log file could be corrupted and missing pieces, or the logger may have been absent for part of the fight. But better to learn how to get a better quality of logs than decide that since quality varies, all logging is useless.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Achievements and immersion

Matticus is discussing what he thinks the ideal dungeon design would be, beginning with a look back at what worked or did not work in previous WoW dungeons. I think his list is good. Regarding storyline, I think Naxxramas missed a big opportunity by failing to have a tie-in to the world around it. Perhaps they felt that since it had already been part of vanilla, it didn't need a new storyline, or perhaps they didn't want to create quests that people who don't raid had no hope of completing, as Tobold suggests. I think in the spirit of making the entry-level raid game more accessible, you'd especially want to have quests pointing to it. Neither of the other raids, Eye of Eternity and Obsidian Sanctum have quests so it seems like a deliberate decision rather than something that just got cut on the way to release. While questing in dragonblight, frequent reference is made to the coming of Naxxramas and it's impact on the region. But players deal with that impact on the ground in the mid-70s before they even have flying mounts, so naturally no one suggests that these players actually try to get in to Naxxramas. However, I think it would have been really cool for level 80 players to have a quest send them back to the old Dragonblight quest hubs. On their return, the old quest-givers would recognize and welcome the players as returning heroes. However, you have come now not to perform rescue operations, not to defend, and not to take orders. You are now leading the charge, in a direct counter-attack, with the intent of utterly destroying the threat hovering in the sky above.

It does seem as though there is intended to be a clear divide from the leveling/questing game, and the heroics/achievements game. Achievements must necessarily exist outside the game, unreferenced by NPCs or quest text, since they would break immersion. So quests never point to anything beyond merely defeating bosses or recovering objects or NPCs in the dungeons. Unlike TBC, no quest that I'm aware of ever requires heroic difficulty. And although there were a few achievement-style objectives that existed in TBC (rescuing Millhouse or the prisoners in Shattered Halls) this style of play has been moved squarely outside the realm of quests and into the non-game realm of achievements. This all makes sense from the perspective of immersion. What exactly is happening in the game when you switch the dungeon to 'heroic'? No attempt is made to explain this, and none come to mind that don't strain the imagination. Similarly, the hard-mode style achievements can't really be explained. Rescuing prisoners within time limits, was all fine and well. But WotLK expanded the whole idea of hard-mode achievements into weird things like deliberately doing encounters in more difficult ways, or with fewer players, something that you really can't, nor should, try to explain in-game. So perhaps the decision was made to make the entire end-game sort of a separation from the leveling/questing game which you basically finish and 'win'. Raiding and achievements are a new type of leveling that don't really exist in game, since they all imply that you are doing the same encounters and killing the same bosses over and over, something which no longer fits in the immersion of the story line.

Interestingly, Ulduar is slated to expand even further the idea of 'hard modes', introducing special loot for doing encounters in harder ways. The Zul-Aman timed runs and the Sartharion drake runs already did this, but these were mostly cosmetic mount awards. The Ulduar hard modes, will give real loot, not mere mounts, and not mere achievements. I like this idea, since it's in keeping with the idea of accessible content. Practically anyone can see the content, and defeat the bosses, but real tangible challenges and rewards are held out for players that want them.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On healers and tanks

I've often thought of publishing a gaming blog, generally having much to say, and appreciating the structure that writing imposes on one's thoughts. Seeing as this is the first post (and therefore statistically speaking, the only post) of my fledgling blog, it will be somewhat general and unfocused. In the hopes that I continue to publish, that will mean that I can lay out some of the general groundwork upon which to build and focus. So here's a quick overview of what I've been up to in WoW.

For WotLK, I decided to reverse the roles of my two main characters. My Protection warrior, long time guild main tank, is now my alt. My resto druid became my main raiding character, and was therefore the first to level to 80. This decision was based primarily on guild needs. A large number of people had decided to switch to a tanking character, due to the new Death Knight class and the general changes made to the tanking role to make it a little more enjoyable. Conversely a number of healers decided to switch out of a healing role, which seems to be pretty common. Healers tend to burn out faster and want to try something else. So we were left with an over-abundance of tanks and a shortage of healers. I enjoy playing both characters and decided I wouldn't mind at all being a primary healer for a while. The promised upcoming dual spec feature meant I would also be able to try a completely different role, probably as balance, without a large investment in gear.

So far I've enjoyed the druid and have healed every raid encounter in the game in 10 and 25 mans. The druid is a very strong healer right now, with an impressive arsenal of heals added to their kit. There are very few fights where I do not end up with the largest amount of healing done, usually by a fair margin. Some fights where there is very little damage are hard to stay on top, since other classes have faster blanket heals (CoH primarily) but since these fights are trivially easy to heal, I'm not really too concerned with who has the most through-put. On harder fights, primarily Malygos, Sapphiron, and Kel'Thuzad, I pull way ahead due to sheer length of the fight and the amount of incoming damage. I have incredible regen capabalities and can churn out a lot of healing without worrying about mana. I give my innervate out to the mana-hogging priests on these fights, and rarely need even a pot for myself.

Healing is a challenging role. I tend to think the most challenging. Tanking I really believe is pretty easy. The hardest part of tanking is done before you ever log in, researching various statistics on gear and stats to determine optimal avoidance and EH and threat for each fight. WotLK has even simplified these elements, making it a pretty simple matter of picking your best gear, then managing your cooldowns. In this respect its pretty similar to the role of DPSer, with just a little added vigilance needed in reacting to damage spikes. The hardest part of tanking is actually nothing to do with tanking per se. The tank ultimately decides every pull, and controls the flow of the raid. It usually falls on the tank to be familiar with every pull, every mob, and every boss. Not only from a tanking perspective but a holistic one. It's possible to raid lead as a healer or DPSer, but one of two things will happen. You will slow the entire raid down a great deal communicating strategy to your tanks or you will find your tanks naturally picking up the mantle of leadership in all the moment-to-moment decisions, leaving the raid leader with only overall strategy decisions or leadership decisions with respect to their role of either healing or DPS, which is really how it should ideally be, with decision-making and leadership the shared responsibilty of about 3 people.