Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dead Numbers Tell No Tales

Okay this time I have to jump in and give my knee-jerk reaction.

Originally, this was supposed to be a response I was going to leave on @Xsinthis ' blog, but it was starting to get so ridiculously long that I'd thought just to post it here.
The post in question:
Very good post, by the way.

I'm still not ready to jump on the bandwagon of joining free-to-play with WoW.
Like Xsinthis, I'm not sure if it's going to "save" it or not, but I think the problem I'm seeing is that people are completely blinded by the subscription numbers and forget to look at what drives those numbers.
Or, at least, I'm not seeing anyone talk about it.
I'm seeing posts about business models, cash shops, history of subscription-based games, etc.

Here's my 2 copper:
It's a tough year for WoW because of the competition

There's a ton of great games that were coming out in 2013 and I think Blizzard did the smart move of making a push in 2012 for all their products before the next slew of games were out.
And each Blizzard IP has a handful of reasons why it's better and more convenient not to have anything out this year.
It's not a competition they would be able to fight, not without high caliber "gaming ammo" to drop in the gaming pond.
They knew this would happen and it's why they're talking about it very matter-of-fact, almost nonchalantly, in the conference calls.

The problem: WoW nostalgia is depleted
Remember that most of World of Warcraft is based on the Warcraft RTS series, which were wildly popular.
Simply based on the fact that Warcraft became an MMO, the people that played the RTS followed where Blizzard was taking the franchise.
The growing popularity of World of Warcraft started spreading and more and more of the people that were originally reticent to play the game joined in, from vanilla through Burning Crusade.
But the crowning jewel was Wrath of the Lich King.

Wrath of the Warcraft III
If you've followed the RTS, you should know that Warcraft III was the most popular, and it was quickly followed by its expansion pack The Frozen Throne.
Warcraft III offered a compelling story of different races caught in wars - against themselves, against other factions, and against the Burning Legion.
But you started right out the gate with the young paladin Arthas Menethil on his quest to figure out what's happening to his kingdom.
And throughout the game, you followed his quest, his dark turn into a death knight, and his ascent to the Frozen Throne, leaving you with a big "To Be Continued" feeling that this was not over.
And so after years of waiting, people gathered to discover the next chapter to the story.
It's no wonder why Wrath was the peak of WoW, is what I'm saying.

DeathWho ?
After that, Cataclysm brought Deathwing forward.
Now don't get me wrong: Deathwing was one of the Big Bads of Warcraft and many people knew who he was.
Unfortunately, not enough people.
Warcraft III was one of the most played games of it's time, but you rarely saw people decide to "downplay" their gaming experience and play Warcraft II - which is when Deathwing was introduced to players.
He also was introduced in books, namely "Day of the Dragon" and the "War of the Ancients" trilogy, but tie-in books could never be as popular as the games themselves.
So Deathwing was not a character that the players knew enough to keep them interested in the game.
Worse: Blizzard did an incredibly poor job at introducing the Villain to the players.
They should've given them a reason to fight him, a list of reasons why he's incredibly dangerous, some more motivation to want to go stick a sword in him.
And in that way - as much as people complained that the Lich King was too much "in our face" throughout his expansion - they should've put Deathwing front-and-center to keep players in line with what should have been their big target for the expansion.
But, of course, interest dropped because of this and a plethora of other reasons.

Pandas in the Mists
With Pandaria, before we even knew that Pandaria was the continent would be explored, lore buffs were baffled (myself included) because the major plot points of the Warcraft RTS had been addressed.
So there was no logical direction to take.
Sure, we could come up with different big, major, evil threats that need to be dealt with, but there were none that could be as Big and Bad as the ones we've already killed before.
Players were drawn to this mostly because no one knew what to expect. 
Pandaria still took off very well with an expansion that was lauded as being the most solid and the most nostalgic kind that players had ever seen.
The lasting power, however, didn't last, as the "box content" was consumed and the technical faults made players hit a wall.
Players had a choice: spend their time and money on climbing that wall or go look at all the games that were starting to come out because 2013 had just arrived.

Screaming at something won't make you kill it
So in the end, all this is not surprising.
My point is: Blizzard doesn't have to go free-to-play with World of Warcraft if there isn't any interest in playing the game at all.
What they need to do is combine aspects of the old and new and push forward some content that will interest people and make sure that no big walls will hinder people's progression through the game.
I'm not saying that they will reach the magical number of 12 million subscribers again, but I'm saying that they will try to do everything that they can to resuscitate the populace's interest in the game.
I'm saying that contrarily to what the birds of doom are writing and commenting and tweeting, World of Warcraft will not bow to these people's cynical whims and lie down and simply wait to die.
There's still a ton of stories, a ton of bad guys, a ton of juice still left in this IP to let it drop.
We just need a good reason, a good Bad Guy, and every step of our way should be a step closer to its' doom.

All eyes on BlizzCon.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Modelling for WoW (All Hail the New Flesh)

Amidst the cries and gnashing of teeth that arose from the masses following the announcement of the Blizzard Store transmogrification helms, I couldn't help but notice a repeated "argument" against such a feature, that went something a little like this:

"Instead of spending time on ugly, useless, expensive helms, why don't you give us our updated character models ?!"

While that statement might be argued vs the aforementioned helms (which I won't delve into), there's the subtle implication or suggested thought that the developers have been holding on to the updated models or that they could've simply released updated models at this point in time in the history of WoW or that updating the models is a simple task.
None of it is the case, and that's what this article is about: updating models is not an easy or simple task.

Why you choose/don't choose a character
Just think about all the current characters in WoW.
I hear most of the complaints about Worgen being about the way their arms move, whether they're running or they're casting spells.
That's the main reason why most players won't play Worgen.
Simple as that. (Oh and that sniffing/snarling sound.)
I kinda hear the same thing concerning Goblins, the way they move being the 2nd complaint why people don't play them, right after the way they talk (the accent gets old really fast for most people).
The main reason I hear from people that don't play them is that they're too silly, that the way they move and emote isn't aggressive enough, isn't what you'd expect from a character that is battle-hardened, that would seem like a threat to others (ie: doesn't look, act, sound like a badass).

So it IS important.
It is why we choose some characters over some others in the Character Creation screen.
Yeah there's other reasons like the lore or the racial buffs, but a majority of players will follow their first impressions of the character models before deciding to play them (or play them longer than the first 10 levels, anyway).

People are attached to their characters
Hey do you remember when they slightly updated the Human Females and it created some ruckus?
It was a minor change, a change that most players wouldn't notice.
And yet, a handful of players couldn't play their Human Female character anymore and played another toon.
This might seem like nothing to most players - it was just the eyes on a character that you spend most of your time looking at from the back!
But then think what would happen if all the character models got updated - and we're not just a change to the face right there : we're talking the way they move, the way they cast spells, the way they're idle, etc.
Players are WAY more picky than you suspect about the way their characters move - you might even be more than you think!

You're used to see your character emote a certain way.
What if they bring up your character to the Pandaren level of top animation and end up having so many different facial expressions that go way beyond everything you've ever seen?

I'm used to my Draenei looking stern and almost expressionless.
In my head, I've associated his demeanor to his race - a proud and battle-hardened people, living on solid principles, with a staunch belief in the Light.
Now what will I think when I see him with a face-full of expressions?
Will the stern Draenei disappear and instead I'll have a character that's WAY more emotional that I've been used to?
Will he smile the very wide smile that the Pandaren have?
Will his demeanor be a little bit more bouncy, giving his walk a humorous attitude rather than the serious and determined, almost military way they walk currently?

What I'm trying to say here is that people may not be aware of it, but they've grown used to the way their characters move, and the slightest change brought in by the updated models might be something that enhances your notions of that race or completely destroy them.
It's a fine line to define on the developer's end and it's not something they can treat lightly.


Yes, Blizzard is working on updating the character models
In case some people might've missed the news, Blizzard has said they've been working on updating the models. (I still see people asking why they're not doing it - they are. You just haven't seen them yet.)
As a matter of fact, here's them at Blizzcon 2011 confirming it:

The question is all about Blizzard doing it right.
However, for them, "doing it right" goes beyond simply updating the models to the new level of cool.
A good developer knows that sometimes the best way to not code themselves in a corner, especially for a program that will continue being developed, is to leave a bunch of options to further expand on the work they're doing right now.
So they have to consider not just what they're doing right now with the character models, but what they might do with them in future expansions.
Maybe the guys have crazy design ideas for gear sets and weapons and they've been hindered all this time by the limitations of our current character models.
But now they have the opportunity to throw ideas at the devs and see if there's anything that's viable, anything that would generate enough interest from players, or just anything that would make other NPCs cooler than cool.
So they've probably spent a lot of time on the drawing boards and in meetings trying to plan all this out as meticulously as possible because it's not just about updating characters.

Actually, let's make a list of the probable things they have to worry about.

A list of possible WoW dev tasks
  • Update the models. That's the skeleton of the characters. It's what the textures are being applied on. They have to make sure that all the articulations work correctly, that all the possible moves by all the classes and all the emotes can be performed correctly, on top of making sure that all the movements still fit the design and signature of all the races.

  • Fix existing model problems. Some models have problems with the way they interact with the world. Mostly clipping issues. I'm sure players would be happy to see their weapons and off-hands not to disappear inside their characters once in a while.

  • Make sure that the gear actually fits all the possible new models. That means going through all of the gear in game and coming up with a solution to the problem of finding some pieces of gear that aren't looking silly when worn by certain characters (mostly the more bulky ones, or the ones with special features). That also means probably having to come up with new models for some pieces of gear. Also make sure that it'll fit with what they're working on in the other cubicles at Blizzard HQ.

  • Make sure as well that textures match the updated models and updated gear. Or else transmogrification and armor sets will look ridiculous. Or else we might have that whole "Human Female eyes" situation all over again - except spread across everything you meet in-game.
  • Then, after the player characters have been taken care of, you have to make sure that all the same types of changes are also applied to every single NPC that is in-game. Think about that. Also, they'll probably have to take a look at all the little in-game events and interactions of all the NPCs to be sure that everything is still all right.

When all that is done (whenever it gets done), they have to find the right time to apply those changes to the game.
If you take into account everything that I've listed, you would probably come to the conclusion that this isn't just "a few little changes".
So they would need a serious big patch to incorporate this to the game, like an expansion, or a pre-expansion patch.

And that, my friends, is one of the big announcements that I'm expecting to hear and see at Blizzcon 2013.

And if someone has the temerity (aka "balls") to ask the devs if they're going to apply those changes to the in-game cinematics, don't be surprised if they answer you with the angriest and biggest middle finger you've ever seen.
The cinematics are fine the way they are.
You'll have to deal with the fact that the cinematics are displaying the "old" models, just like you currently have to deal with the fact that Outland and Northrend are fixed in the "past", and they won't update those unless they really need to.
They'll tell you to at least be happy with the work they've done - the work that you've been requesting so angrily for so long.
You've been requesting this and they've worked very hard and very long to present you with the best they've got.

Enjoy what you have before it's gone and embrace the incoming changes with open arms.

All hail the new flesh.

EDIT: Forgot to mention something that a few people might find important.
With new models comes also the possibility to get new character movements for the class abilities, better emoting, new emotes and new dances.
And you thought that the Dance Studio was a joke.