Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Warcraft's Ends (Part 1): No Ender's Game

With the end of the development of  the Mists of Pandaria expansion and Blizzcon 2013 coming in a few months, we're taking a look at some concerns I have in regards to World of Warcraft.

Mists of Pandaria is a breath of fresh air in the storyline of World of Warcraft.
Much like the Burning Crusade expansion, it is a summer vacation we take to another environment, where we met new people, new threats, a huge change of scenery and graphic assets.

It's like opening a big variety of new casks when you're starting to get tired of the same old stale beers.
The opinions on the new beers are also quite varied: a majority likes the simple new twists on the known recipes, some will take a liking to the new types of flavors, some will prefer the more unusual brews.
And of course, much like Brewfest, a crowd can't agree on a single unanimous winner.

But one thing was sure from the players' feedback in the first few weeks of the expansion: this is the best that Warcraft ever gave its' players.

And though I agree with that sentiment, why do I feel so... weird about it?

Best storytelling yet
Mists of Pandaria is the whole package.
The Jade Forest is a FANTASTIC introduction; the other zones do a very commendable job of moving you along whilst giving you enough time to truly enjoy the scenery and characters; and the combo of Dread Wastes, Heart of Fear and Terrace of Endless Springs brings a satisfying conclusion to the story of the adventures of your character in Pandaria (before patches).
There's no loopholes, no open-ended stories.
There's a beginning, development, end, and almost no great deviation from the main threads of the story you're playing through.
Yes, if you start digging around, you'll start finding some details about things without a proper explanation (such as "Wait a second, there's supposed to be 7 Sha in Pandaria. Did I miss one?"), but I'm talking about the overall story here.

I did not feel any disconnection like I did in Cataclysm, which was felt in every zone and every dungeon and every raid.
They've done a really good job of tying everything together in Pandaland, and then they can play around with bits and pieces here and there with patches and add complimentary storylines.

Which leads me to think that we're probably not going to have a ton of open-ended stories from Pandaria.
We're not going to have legions of lore buffs asking questions about Pandaria to Dave Kozak and Chris Metzen at the next Blizzcon.
We might have questions about the other 2 threads they've brought to Pandaria - the never-ending war of Alliance VS Horde and the Titan/Old Gods stories - which are things that they made sure were still front-line and center of your character's preoccupations as a resident of Azeroth.
And that's good, because these are the stories that are vital to the franchise and that keep the overall lore going.

But lore aficionados know that we're going to have other questions...

Scott Panda VS the World (of Warcraft)
If Mists of Pandaria has shown us storytelling done right, it unfortunately shines a light on the faults and errors of previous content.
The major ones being:
  • having clear introductions
  • having satisfying conclusions
  • knowing who is the enemy
  • knowing why they're the enemy
  • knowing who are your allies
  • knowing why they're your allies
  • understanding why you're going into dungeons and raids and your objective in them
And what you end up with is threads upon threads of people with questions about lore, lots of different answers, and even the guys in charge of storytelling (seemingly) unable to answer them.
From a development point of view, you can always go "That's great because that gives us a lot of material to work on in the future if we should ever need some", and that's perfectly legit.
Look at revamped Azeroth 1 to 60: that's a perfect example of them fleshing out stories they've left behind.
However, there's rarely any conclusion to them.

There's a lot of quests where you have to act in the current situation in which you find the quest giver, but there's not a lot of attention put on the bigger picture of what's happening.
What will happen after you turn in the quest?
What will the NPC do with the things you've collected for him?
How will the enemies or environment act once you've taken something from them or disturbed them?
A lot of these concerns are addressed in Pandaria questing, but not so much for the rest of Azeroth.

The benefits of endings (sad or happy)
Yes, I know that it's great for an MMO to have a lot of options opened for future storytelling.
Yes, I know they need to have re-occurring characters, plots, storylines, to have references for the players so they can create easy associations and embark easily on new ideas you're trying to push on them.
Yes, I know an MMO isn't supposed to end.
I knooooooow.

However, when you create a plethora of characters, storylines and conflicts, and you're trying to engage players emotionally into them, you have to do something about that once in a while.
You either infuse more story to bring new life and continue/renew that engagement with the players, or you bring a satisfying conclusion.
Doesn't matter if it's a happy or sad conclusion as long as the 2 important elements are there: 1- the story's definitely done; 2- it is a fulfilling conclusion that leaves no place for an ambiguity of feelings.

And this is something I've been picking up from the WoW community during Cataclysm and onwards: you can only have so many open-ended stories before people get frustrated/angry at you for not giving a proper conclusion to a story that they got themselves invested in.
That's not just something that's limited to WoW - there's books, movies, TV series, etc.

But in the case of WoW, there's a couple of things that are pushing towards conclusions, and one of them is time.

Who wants to live forever? Me!
At the time of writing this, I am 32 years old.
I've invested several years into World of Warcraft, and even longer in Blizzard's franchises, having played Warcraft III, Starcraft and Diablo when they were originally released.
Blizzard and their stories and their characters and the mythology of everything they've created are a part of my life.
Their games may live on forever, but I certainly won't.
And the good people at Blizzard won't either.

At some point, some of us are unfortunately going to be reaped, leaving the others sad and brokenhearted.
Much like the fans of George R. R. Martin, I want to tell Blizzard "Don't you guys want to finish this story before one of us goes away?".

At every expansion, we have people leaving, people coming back, and new players wanting to know what all the fuss is about.
We also have some people, because of RL reasons, that can't or won't come back because the time investment is more than they can afford to keep this MMO relation going.
I don't have anything really pulling me away from WoW and my accumulated /played stands for itself when it comes to designate me as That Which Has No Life (which should be an in-game title of shame).

But I want answers at some point.

There was so much fucking around that I could stand in the X-Files series before I just gave up on the whole thing (and I still don't want to watch the other series or movies - I'm done and fuck 'em).
I've felt the same way about the Anita Blake novels - there's so much relationship/powers/metaphysical sex discussions that I could take (and a disturbing scene that got me thoroughly disgusted) before I lost patience in the overall plot of a Great Evil and stopped reading the books.
I haven't watched Lost, but I guess that there's some analogy I would write here if I spent some time watching the series.

And that's the odd feeling I've been getting before and after experiencing Pandaria.
All those unanswered questions that we've just left behind to go have a vacation.
Granted, we needed the change of scenery.
After all the destruction and chaos, Azeroth was getting a bit stuffy and we needed to give the Earthen Ring some time to fix things, open up a few windows, hang some air fresheners, and take a little walk outside ourselves.
But there were some things broken back home and we'd have to come back to them at some point.
That's what's been nagging me in different moments of the expansion whenever I'd run some alts around or help friends with old dungeons and raids.
So is Blizzard going to let us address those issues or will we have to spend our time taking care of another catastrophe in a different room of our house?

What I'm saying is: I'm still here, but I'm starting to get annoyed at you, Blizzard.
I'm not going anywhere, but the longer you choose to ignore the things I care about, the more likely the chance is that I'll turn into one of those forum trolls or just stop supporting WoW, which would be heartbreaking for me.
Why should I spend more time on story lines you're never going to finish?

Really, it's less about filling a Warcraft lore Mad Libs, and more about finding closure after investing so much time in your stories before I simply decide you're not worth it anymore.
Just give me satisfying endings to your stories and I'll follow the new ones you're starting.

I just want closure.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll cover my expectations of the next expansion.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Let's have some fun : Warcraft predictions!

(Technically: Blizzard predictions, but it comes down to World of Warcraft anyways.)

I love trying to predict the future, and considering that I was pretty much on the ball last time I tried it (though a few months off because of the unexpected Diablo III delay that shocked everyone), I want to have another shot at it. Halfway through an expansion is always the best time to do this kind of thing, so here we go!

Let's recap!
Mists of Pandaria Launch: Aug. 28th, 2012
Patch 5.1 : Nov. 27th, 2012 (3 months after launch)
Patch 5.2 : March 5th, 2013 (3 months after patch 5.1)

Patch 5.3 : released sometime in June - Max date: July 2nd
This will happen for 2 reasons: it does follow the 3 months pattern, and also their own pattern of releasing a patch before some major holidays - in this case the Summer vacations for most Americans (and therefore Blizzard employees).
We all know it's best if they give themselves a few weeks of hotfixing and patching the patch before the situation is stabilized and they can start getting ready for the upcoming PTR.
So the best scenario would be to have it out in the first 2 weeks of June so they can control any wildfires before the July 2nd maintenance and head out for... some Jack and cokes and snorkeling (I assume that's what they do in their off-times).
If it's released on July 2nd, expect players bitching about how long it will take the devs to fix anything in-game.

Hearthstone Beta : Summer 2013
Relax, sit back, have a cold drink, and enjoy the heck out of the Heartstone Beta test!
If you're not still clearing out Throne of Thunder with your guild, this will be what you'll be doing when you're all WoWed out or when your whole guild is on vacation hiatus.
Considering that new raiding content will be months away, having this fun little game will be a pleasant change of scenery (if you're not taking another look at Starcraft 2 or Diablo III).
I, for one, am WAY more excited than I would normally think I would be.

Patch 5.4 : released before Winter holidays - Fallback: right after holidays
This patch will be the long-awaited one, bringing a new and final tier of raiding in Mists of Pandaria.
This will be the patch that will tide us over until the next expansion, so they will have to pay extra attention to what they're adding into the game.
We can expect the PTR to start in August or September (more likely) and last a few months.
There's a few ways they can go about the release time of this patch, but everything depends on the choice they'll have to make : which goes first, the patch or Blizzcon?

If they release it in October, they won't have much to talk about the patch at Blizzcon, except that the content will have been released and the focus will be on the next expansion.
On top of that, you'll have some angry raiders on your back, because we know that some players that are in top raiding guilds always show up at Blizzcon, but some would have to cancel their trip because they would probably be in the midst of the races to clear the Heroic raid.

If they release it in November, they'll have talked about the patch content at Blizzcon, which will have calmed down the ardors of the raging impatient masses that will have bitched again and again that raiding content takes too long to get released. (That complaint will happen anyway and really nothing can stop it from happening.)
But just give the time for everyone at Blizzard to come down from the huge high they got from the community and they'd have a patch out of the oven for the end of November.
That would be the perfect time to let it out, making sure that the "world first" competitions would be done just in time for the Winter holidays, and that the major part of players would be only able to play it during the holidays because we all know that November/December are really hard on giving everyone free time to play games.

The lifetime of the patch would last us until February/March 2014 and the player base would start showing signs of being hungry for content again, while completionists scurry to finish as much content as possible.

Hearthstone Release: Winter 2013
They said they wanted the game out this year, and given the state of the game they've presented at PAX East, it's gonna happen.
What could delay the release is what they have planned to add to the game for the Beta.
All the extra functions to game mechanics (that have been hinted at in the Hearthstone forums by Blue poster CM Phenteo) as well as connectivity with Battle.net and the other games through Battle.net will be tested, de-bugged, patched, until everything is smooth.
Depending on the stability of things and feedback they get, it could take a long time to have everything packaged and ready to go.
So my Winter 2013 release date is very conservative and iffy at best - we could have it ready to go by Fall 2013.
But wouldn't that be a nice little game to share with the whole family during the Winter holidays...

Xpac #5 Beta: Spring 2014
Give the 5.4 patch enough time to have it's effects die (it's usually a 3-month cycle per patch, as observed by myself, and admitted by Blizzard devs) and they'll start either teasing us about the Beta or some info will leak out about the Alpha test (though they've been getting better and better at controlling leaks).
Remember that a Beta for an expansion usually takes much more time to prepare and collect, analyze and improve on players' feedback.
The length of a Beta period is uncertain.
I think they would like to keep it under 6 months tops.
It's usually towards the middle of it that angry players are at their loudest and Ghostcrawler tells them to calm down and go play another game in the meantime.

Xpac #5 Pre-Launch Patch : at some point to tide us over - about one month before launch
The usual keep-all-players-up-to-date patch, but will they give us a World Event or not?

Xpac #5 release: Fall 2014
The timing is not altogether uncommon. MoP was announced in October 2011 at Blizzcon and was released in September 2012, so to have that same amount of time in between announcement and release makes sense.
It also is on par with Burning Crusade and Wrath timings.
And if you take into account all the previous patches and testing into account, it's the only way that this can go about.
Unless they surprise us with an announcement like they did at the previous Blizzcon and let us know that they are way far ahead in the development stages and they can get this expansion shipped out way earlier than anyone could have predicted.
Hey, it could happen.

My wish: a surprise content patch!
Maybe they're not ready with the expansion yet and they can give us a Sunwell-type of surprise patch that no one's expecting.
Maybe 5.4 doesn't necessarily equal the end of the expansion.
So far, we're basing ourselves on the fact that they've been referring to patch 5.4 back when they had the MoP press event and we learned that we're going to have to deal with Garrosh in the last raid.
Also, the achievement tab has been laying out the Wrathion storyline since the beginning.
But maybe Wrathion's story does not necessarily signal the end of the expansion.
It's a big maybe - and I don't believe it myself - but I'm not ruling it out because I would like a good lil' sucker punch of a surprise once in a while. (That's one of the reasons why I stepped into MoP mostly blind.)

Other variables
Blizzard likes to control their product releases and make sure they don't overlap each other.
It's important in a marketing point of view to make sure that the people that follow your brand and company are not confused at any point about what you're cooking up and what's the next thing to come out of you.
So let's see what else Blizzard is cooking.

Starcraft II expansion: Legacy of the Void
Seeing that they took about 3 years to release Heart of the Swarm after Wings of Liberty, I wouldn't be surprised to hear them talk about a 2015 or 2016 release.
It's a goodly amount of time and a really good business choice, especially if you take into account the growing fanbase for professional Starcraft games and the recent moves by Blizzard to consolidate and reinforce the structures that keep the e-gaming scene up and running.
This is a brand that is very strong and that has many good years and a lot of potential to exploit.
I don't see this interfering at all with my predictions for WoW.
PS: We still have to find out what this Project Blackstone thing is all about...

Diablo III Expansion
At the speed they're pumping out patches, everything seems to be running smoothly for this game.
Some seem to disagree with that statement.
I mean, some people were just plain unhappy with the game as it came out (connection issues aside).
They can keep it well and truly alive for as long as they want, until the expected expansion arrives. Now we don't have any specific data on which we can base ourselves to have an idea of the speed they're working at in the Diablo department.
The time when they'd release this expansion would be a good indicator for the next things that will happen after that.
So really, it's a shot in the dark for this IP and I think fans would be very happy for any kind of news on that situation.

"Project Titan"
Not expecting any news on this.
None at all.
Remember that it took several years of development for Blizzard to come up with the immense universe that was World of Warcraft vanilla.
They need time to make this new game?
That's fine with me - they can take as much time as they want, because I know it's going to be a great game.
Anyways, won't interfere with the WoW schedule I've laid out.

Mystical ballz
So that's that!
Yeah it means you have almost a year and a half to wait until the next expansion, but there's a few milestones along the way that will keep you occupied.
This was merely an exercise for myself, to map out as much of the future as I could, just for the heck of it.
We'll see if I'm correct about all of this as time goes on.