Sunday, November 23, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VII - Gearing Up For WoW

So I'm back in WoW, much to my surprise, and I have to say that I am really enjoying it. The game is like a comfortable pair of slippers, easy to slide back into it and gentle on the soles of the feet. There have been some issues with massive log-in queues, but they seem to have been fixed as of last Saturday. It's very comforting to see some old faces, and to exchange in good-natured banter with team mates, guild mates and the like. My gaming circle has transferred en-masse to the PvP Oceanic server of Gundrak. We left our old guild behind, which was an occasion for a little bit of remorse, given that we have been there since vanilla. Cross-realm grouping allows for us to stay in touch and play with people we left behind however, so it's not goodbye for good.

Tientzo in Shadowmoon Valley.

Season 16 kicks off on December 2nd, and as a PvPer pretty much everything I am doing is geared towards getting ready for the 10-15 week grind for full Conquest gear. It takes about 27,000 points to get full Conquest, which equates to 15 weeks for someone at 1800 cap (1700 in WoD), just over 12 weeks for someone at 2200, and even less for players with higher caps. My approach to this season will be the same as it has usually been for previous seasons - accumulate gear by hitting Conquest caps on a weekly basis via Arenas and Rated BGs, and then push for rating at the end of the season. First things first, however - we all have to first hit the level cap, and that requires questing. Ugh. TESO has inculcated a deep and abiding distaste of questing for me, and I had to say that I wasn't looking forward to grinding to 100 in WoW. I have been pleasantly surprised however - maybe it's just nostalgia, but I am having fun levelling in WoD. Can I just say that levelling in a PvP server is a frenetic free for all in contested zones? The Horde outnumber the Alliance two to one on Gundrak. To make matters worse, the Horde outnumber the Alliance more than two to one on Jubei'Thos, and since these two realms are linked, it has created an overall population imbalance of more than four to one in favour of the Horde. Not that it matters - I actually like being outnumbered, even if it means that I will spend a lot of time corpse running. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I spent a great deal of time being a ganker on Illidan, where the Horde outnumbered the Alliance a ridiculous 35-1. It's a little different on Gundrak, given that I chosen to main my monk this season. No stealth, Vanishes or Shadowmelds this time around - instead I have to be aware of my environment, group up when necessary, use the monk's amazing mobility to get out of trouble, or be flexible about where I can level if things get too hot in a given zone. I never read quest text in the best of times, but OMG turning in becomes Mission Impossible unto itself if there are Horde about. Killing quest mobs sometimes becomes a frantic case of darting in, getting the mob down ASAP, and then getting the hell out of there. It certainly keeps me on my toes, and I'm quite happy to relinquish a degree of control over my levelling experience to have this sense of constant danger around me. Sometimes there are periods of uneasy peace, where a bunch of Horde and Alliance stand nervously around a quest giver, but all it takes is one hawk on either side to start attacking, and the whole thing devolves into a massive brawl. There are more unspoken truces in one on one encounters - players circle around each other warily and go on about their business - but as soon as numbers begin to pile up in any given location, the odds of a peaceful resolution drop dramatically. You can inadvertently hit someone with an AoE spell while hitting mobs (I've done it a few times with Chi Wave), and this can constitute the provocation which sets off the ensuing bloodbath. "You dare poke me with your Chi Wave? I'll eat your heart, Alliance scum!"

The real meat of the season occurs when our team start actually pushing for rating. Everything else is just practice. Traditionally pushing for rating comes in two flavours. You can either push at the beginning of the season, and sit on your rating for the remainder. The pro teams do it this way, and there are some advantages associated with this. By pushing hard to a high rating you increase your Conquest caps, so much so that you can be 1-4 pieces of gear ahead of the opposition who only play to the regular cap. By the end of the gearing period everyone will be wearing the same gear, so the rationale behind this approach is to go hard early, get high caps and therefore get a gearing advantage, and then exploit this advantage to get higher ratings on the ladder before everyone else catches up to your level of gear. If you're going to go down this route you have to make sure that you start the season with full Honor gear before the Rated season begins. Some people are lazy about their Honor grind pre-season, and you may start with a gearing advantage if your opposition didn't bother grinding. I've attained the best ratings I've ever had by this method (1900+), going hard in the very first week of the season with a team of like-minded individuals with only Honor gear and one piece of Conquest. The gear differential may be miniscule, but in tight situations these disparities might be all that stands between the way of a guaranteed kill or a recovery by the enemy team.

The second way is the way I have usually done it, which is basically use the gearing period to practice and learn your class and spec before finally pushing for rating at the end of the season, once all your team mates are decked out in full Conquest. The teams I have played in usually reserve the last 4-6 weeks of a season to push rating, and it is a better fit for the people I play with, given that we all have varying demands on our time and schedules. I've been out of the game for eight months, I'm playing WoW PvP with a Razer Naga for the first time, and there have been massive changes to the meta. All of these factors require a learning period which I would prefer to spread out over 2-3 months rather than compressing into a two week period before Season 16 begins. Given what I know of the changes to the PvP meta it would seem that melee will be the king of this expansion. No more disarms, the pruning of instant cast heals, and less CC equals more uptime for melee to stay in the face of their target. MoP was unquestionably dominated by spell casters, with locks, mages, shadow priests, druids and shamans making up the bulk of high end tournament play. WoD looks like it might be the era of melee. Fitting, too, given the theme of the expansion. I was going to roll shadow priest this time around - I used my free 90 boost to level one - but when I looked at his defensive CDs I thought to myself, "How in the name of the Light am I going to get melee off of myself?" No more Psychic Fiend. Psychic Scream and Void Tendrils share the same tier talent, and given that most melee I know have at least two escapes from Fear (all have trinket plus DK's Desecrated Ground, ret pally's bubble, Warrior's Berserk, and a Windwalker's Nimble Brew) without taking into account defensive dispels from their healer, it looks like it's going to be a long season for priests. Can anyone say Choo Choo Train? These guys are going to be trained into the ground by melee teams, and their survival is going to be heavily dependent on the quality of the peels and heals from their team mates. This is the case for every class - this is why Arena and Rated BGs are a team e-sport - but there is a threshold where the advantages your class offers is offset by the disadvantages, and it looks like shadow priests might have crossed it. They'll still be great in Rated BGs, because offensive dispels, off heals and multiple target DoT pressure is still valuable in this setting. Arenas might be a different story, but who knows, my knowledge of the new meta is in its preliminary stages at the moment.

So rather than going priest, I'm going to main a monk, either as a healer or a melee dps. I will decide once Rykester, Ratsac and Lelle decide what specs they will roll - I don't have to decide until I ding 100, and the Honor grind begins. Even then the choice is not irrevocable, not until the purchase of my first Conquest piece. This initial purchase determines my spec for the season. For now I am questing as a Windwalker, and learning how to play him with a Razer Naga. As retarded as it sounds, I have only played Arenas and Rated BG's as a keyboard turner, and the difference is night and day - I hope that this transition to mouse based control will be the catalyst that will put me over 2k in the coming seasons. Fortunately I've become more proficient with the Naga, which I bought in March just when I was quitting WoW. I used it in TESO and AA, and my hand has finally adapted and learned the position of the keys, even the keys located in the most difficult hand contorting positions. In a way it was good for me to take a break from WoW. It erased my memories of my previous keybinds, and allowed me to remap them onto a control method which I had finally become comfortable with. One day I will level my rogue, and I will compare my footage as a keyboard turning rogue with that of me playing with a mouse.

I'm using questing as a way of practicing, assigning keybinds to mouse button, and learning their location via repetitive use. I aggro two mobs at a time, Paralyse one, and then practice unloading burst on the other. I'm trying to winkle out what my burst combo is, and am disciplining myself to pool my resources. PvE is different to PvP in that PvE requires you to dump resources before you cap, because sitting at full means a net DPS loss. In PvP you are required to sit on fully pooled resources a lot of time to ensure that when your team mate says go, you can put the pedal to the metal and unload coordinated burst on your kill target. The discipline part comes in when you are not bursting, and just putting out light pressure - it's hard not to dump all your resources into your current target, and then suddenly find that when it's time to swap you have your trinket and CD buffs but no resources to apply maximum pressure. In my monk's case, I need to have all my Tigereye Brew stacked and ready to go, as well as having a full pool of Chi. My preliminary burst combo is hitting trinket + brew, starting with a Rising Sun kick (the monk's hardest hitting ability with a healing debuff), then spamming Blackout Kick. I also need to practice kiting, which is something that monks excel at. If I can kite well I will have the option of two jobs in Rated BG play - one as melee DPS, and another as a FC (flag carrier). Not to mention heals if I roll Mistweaver. A lot of this is really simple in theory - the trick is to make these moves instinctive, fluid, and automatic through thousands of repetitions in a vast array of situations. This means duelling constantly against every possible class and spec, practicing in random BGs and Arena skirmishes, and finally playing lots and lots of Rated games.

Tientzo solos an elite in kiting him to the NPC guards. Hey, whatever it takes, right?

I never thought I would say it, but it's really good to be back. Moreover, it's good to be back with people who I enjoy playing the game with. None of this really matters - the grind, the gear, the ladder, even the rating itself - I proved that to myself when I walked away from the game. You don't miss it when you're gone. It's just something to give you focus while playing, and it is a worthy end in of itself, because it requires discipline, skill and team work to achieve. Nonetheless, ladder achievements all pale into comparison with the company you keep, and the comrades, friends and family you play with. Nothing beats the feeling of achieving goals with people you like, and hopefully there will be plenty of shared laughs, groans of agony, cheers of victory, agonizing defeats, and ridiculous out-of-your ass plays in the coming season. I'm sure there will be dummy spits and moments of self-doubt, too, in which I question my ability to play the game, but we've been playing together for literally thousands of games in both formats, and if we're still playing together after all the arguments, frustrations, and setbacks we've had then nothing in the future is going to stop us.

Bring on the new season, and let the games begin.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VI - A Return to Azeroth

I really thought that I was done with WoW.
I penned a series of posts last year entitled Diaries of a Ganker, and in these posts I gave the account of my shenanigans as a ganker on Illidan, as well as my team's attempt to push rating on the Arena and Rated BG ladders. In March, however, I cancelled my subscription and called it quits for good, or so I thought. The fact that Warlords of Draenor was coming did nothing for me. Nor did the announcement that Australia was getting their own servers fill me with excitement. As a resident of Japan my latency on Australian and American servers are about the same, clocking in at roughly 120 ms. There are two other MMOs vying for my time - TESO and AA - and as I said in a previous post, the only reason why I would return to WoW is if the group of players I used to play with decided to jump back in the saddle again. Given that we have all splintered into differing pursuits the probability of this happening equated to the proverbial snowball's chance in hell.

The first inkling that the snowball might survive came when an old comrade-in-arms Sorgon appeared on Battlenet when I was playing Hearthstone. I haven't seen this guy for almost a year, and he is one of the two really excellent warlocks I've met on my old server. He is also an old Arena team mate and a 2k Rated BG player. We exchanged some light banter, and he surprised me by saying he was thinking of returning to WoW. I wished him luck, told him I had too many things on my plate, and said farewell.

The second hint that the universe was coming into alignment was the appearance of Tamati on Battlenet, a Kiwi team mate who had moved to the United Arab Emirate. After months of silence, he appeared, told me he had a stable Internet connection, said he was thinking of diving back into WoW rated play, and asked whether I was thinking of running Rated BGs this coming expansion? I said no, wished him well, and we went our separate ways.

The third revelation occurred when Rykester. a good mate in real life who called WoW quits at the end of last year, asked me whether or not I would be playing the expansion. I said no, then queried, are you? He said, well we have Aussie servers now, latency isn't going to screw us over anymore. We won't lose games based on bad ping. What about TESO, I asked. He said, the AvAvA is fun, but it's not Skyrim, which is what I really wanted. You should play AA, I said. It's more Skyrim than TESO is. Really? he replied. I might give it a bash someday, but WoD looks really fun. You know they are letting us transfer our toons over for free, right?


And there's a free week of subscription available?


At this stage I realised that the world was moving in mysterious ways, and conspiring to return me to WoW. I messaged a friend and team mate Ratsac on Battlenet. You playing WoW? Ratsac has been busy in real life building a new house over in Perth, and his reply was curt and to the point. Fucking oath, bro. He then went on, I've been playing boomie on the Oceanic servers, and owning everyone. It's a different game on 20-40 ms. You should listen to all the Americans QQing in Oceanic BGs about the bad ping, bitching that the game is unplayable. Now they know how us Aussies feel. Ratsac recently got his 2k achievement in Rateds at 200+ ms, so I shudder to think how much carnage he will wreck at 20 ms.
The final revelation occurred when I conversed with my sister on Skype recently. Known as Lelle in WoW, and Sally in TESO, she just had a new baby and being a new parent is consuming almost all her time. She asked me, so are we going to play WoW? I was rather taken aback by this question. What about the baby? And TESO? I can't play as much as I used to, obviously, she replied. But we can work around the baby. And I can play my warrior without lag!!! Hurrah!!! She was positively beaming with enthusiasm. I can't recall her being so excited for a game for a long time.
What finally sealed the deal was watching Blizzcon and the WoW Arena World Championships, which were the closest and most competitive series I have seen in the history of the competition (the semi-finals and the final are all embedded in this post). Both semi-finals had the winners coming back from a 2-0 deficit to take the series 3-2, with the title eventually being taken in 4-2 in a best of seven series. I also saw what may be the changing of the WoW guard - anyone who follows WoW Arena will know the names Cdew, Venrucki, Snutz, Talbadar and co., and I found it very interesting that long time stalwarts Skill Capped and Three Amigos tumbled to a new European team called Bleached Bones. Lazerchicken was a revelation, playing his hybrid boomkin class beautifully, putting out constant damage pressure, kiting in tandem with his healer when trained, and supporting his team with off-heals and peels to alleviate pressure when required. Watching these games rekindled the old love for this format, and a desire to mix it up and try again to hit that holy grail of PvP for me, a 2k rating. This is something I have never been able to do despite years of trying, and while I have come agonisingly close, I have never reached this milestone.
I have cancelled my TESO subscription after eight months in the game, and designated it as a title to return to in the future. I will keep pottering away in AA because it is the most alive persistent world I have been to despite its repeated attempts to scuttle itself by inept customer service. But my friends and family are going back to WoW, and they are doing so with big happy smiles on their faces. At the end of the day all the thousands of words about meaningful persistent sandbox worlds means nothing in the face of the bonds between friends, family, and old comrades. The stars have aligned - the signs in the tea leaves are clear - the augurs have spoken. WoW is beckoning.
Who am I to argue with the universe?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part I - Immigrant Blues

It's tough to be an immigrant.

Stranger in a strange land. It's just Hatakeyama and her beast - mount - thingy - in a hostile world.
You're a stranger in a strange land. You don't know the language, or in the case of MMOs, the peculiar shorthands which spring up to describe the various dungeons, raids or what-not. The geography is confusing, and the road ahead is murky - you don't know what activities are level-appropriate, or what the best route to the power cap is. You are ignorant of the norms governing the space, nor do you know who the influential guilds are, a factor which becomes important if you want to dive into inter-guild warfare. The vast multitude of crafting materials and harvestable goods on offer present an intricate interlocking jigsaw that defies easy assimilation. The plethora of NPCs and their titles mean nothing to you as of yet, and the simple act of drawing water has you in a tizzy trying to remember where the last well you stopped at was.

As a tourist, however, you do possess a number of advantages. You have travelled through similar landscapes before, and there are many elements which are familiar. The tab targeting CD based combat is like a second skin, and soon the neural pathways begin to be mapped and reinforced by hundreds of key presses against generic mobs doomed to wander in circumscribed areas like lambs awaiting the slaughter. Skill trees are easy to comprehend, and you find yourself peering at the tool tips to try to winkle out synergies and combos. The gold sellers and bots are a familiar blight, as are the trolls, the idiots, the know-it-alls, the lost and confused, and the occasional wits with the genuinely funny comebacks and one-liners.

Yuri Hatakeyama, in yet another incarnation in another virtual world.
This is the situation faced by my avatar Hatakeyama in Archeage, now level 36, currently guild-less (actually now a member of Unreal Aussies - why do I always find these badly named guilds?), friend-less, and somewhat hapless in this brave new world she finds herself in. AA has had its share of detractors, most recently Syncaine of Hardcore Casual and J3w3l of Healing the Masses, and their most biting criticisms have been aimed at the (to use Syncaine's term) pay for power (P4P) elements of the game. While J3w3l is quite happy enough to continue playing despite Trion's dubious payment model, Syncaine has thrown in the towel and cancelled his sub. This has led to, somewhat interestingly enough, a spirited debate on his own blog where his buddy Mobs accuses Syncaine of not giving the game a fair shake. Not knowing either of the two protagonists I stay out of the argument - but it has led to a new resolution to view the game with my own eyes  rather than taking at face value everything that Syncaine has to say on his blog regarding AA.

So this posts, and all other posts marked with the pre-fix "Adrift in Archeage" will detail the tales of this wandering Haranya. In her travels she has noticed a few things, chief most being the different caste of citizens which exist in AA. The lowest caste are the people who play for free. They are unable to own property, and earn Labor points at a reduced rate. Labor is the bedrock of crafting in AA - all crafting actions cost Labor - and this caste only earns Labor while they are online, which led to some interesting ramifications during launch. On the upside, they have the chance to play without shelling out any real life currency before deciding whether or not this game is for them.

The second tier of citizenship belongs to subscribers. They have priority queuing. They earn Labor at a higher rate, but more importantly, they also earn Labor while they are offline and have a higher Labor cap. They also have the ability to own property. Property allows you to grow crops, raise livestock and builds houses on protected land - while anyone can plant or raise livestock pretty much anywhere in the world, these items are vulnerable to depredation from other players who chance on these items growing in the wild. Crops or livestock on protected land cannot be plundered, although I have to confess that I only know this to be true for "protected" (i.e. non-PvP) zones. Whether protected land in PvP zones offer the same guarantees is something I have to discover once I venture forth into these areas.

The very top tier of citizenship in AA belongs to the "whales" who are subscribers but are also willing to shell out extra cash for P4P items in the cash shop. While being a subscriber in WoW, Eve Online or TESO gives you access to the complete game supplemented by a cosmetic cash shop, Trion has taken the somewhat dubious road of implementing a cash shop which sells not only vanity gear, but also items which boost a player's power. These items include Labor boosts, crafting boosts, better gliders, and items which dramatically remove the RNG factor in the upgrading of gear.

So the question for me is whether I am willing to put up with this kind of blatant cash grab in order to play the game. In many ways AA is a strange beast - it forces PvPers to play PvE until level 30, and it forces PvErs to adjust to a PvP end game beyond 30. PvP can be avoided entirely by staying in protected zones and venturing into contested zones during times of peace only, so it is conceivable to play AA as a PvEr only, much like how high-sec industrialists do it in Eve Online. As a PvPer though I do have legitimate concerns as to whether or not I am willing to face players who can spend wads of real life cash to get a gearing edge on me in PvP.

The short answer is yes, for now. Quite a few reasons spring to mind, the first being the lack of alternatives. Single player games which I have been looking forward to have not met my expectations - Jagged Alliance: Flashback, by all accounts, is a steaming pile of manure, while Beyond Earth has been damned with faint praise, with one reviewer comparing it to a Civ 5 mod without the actual charm of historical leaders, units, wonders, religions and cultural works. I have no doubt I will buy and play this game one day, but coming off a Civ 5 marathon game on a Huge map on Deity difficulty which took about two weeks to complete, it is the last thing I want to do at the moment. I have TESO burn-out thanks to the immeasurable grind required to level Veteran ranks, and am willing to put off levelling until patch 1.5 goes live, and the experience requirement becomes drastically reduced. Being a long time WoW player I thought WoD would tempt me, but strangely enough it hasn't. When I was a WoW subscriber I didn't play WoW the MMO, but rather WoW the MOBA ladder tournament of Arenas and Rated BGs. The only reason for returning to WoW would be if the old gang decided to assemble one more time, but given that my team mates have scattered all over the world this has become increasingly unlikely. Corona is off on deployment, Rykester is doing his Masters, Sally has a new baby, Tamati has moved to the United Arab Emirates, and even Ratsac is focusing more on RL diversions. This is actually the first time I have really played an MMO on my own - I'm used to having Sally and Rykester having my back, and when we're together the thousands of Arena games we have played together means we can give as good as we get in the vast majority of encounters against other players in both WoW and TESO. Focusing targets, quick swaps, synchronising CDs and peels are second nature for us, and usually means we can leverage our years of teamwork against disorganized mobs of players. No longer. I'm just one guy now, and an ignorant neophyte at that. I tried joining Syncaine's guild in Ollo, but given that the guild has disintegrated prematurely that idea is still-born. If I'm going to play AA I'm going to have to start from scratch, with nary a friend in sight, but this isn't a prospect I am facing with dread, although I do miss my long time intrepid companions.

Seeing a skyship for the first time, Hatakeyama looks on with awe.
The more fundamental reason as to why I'm OK with playing in an environment like AA's is that I hold with the idea that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of open world PvP. The distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical games are very clear in my own mind - I place discrete, balanced and instanced games like WoW Arena, League of Legends and StarCraft 2 in one category, and persistent open world games like EVE Online, Darkfall, TESO and now Archeage in another. Each style of gameplay has its own appeal - in balanced PvP all things being equal the team with greater skill will win, which is why this type of gameplay has to be scrupulously balanced in order to ensure that player ability is the primary determinant of victory. In persistent world PvP there are so many variables that winning is not always determined by skill. It can be influenced by level/gear differential, state of readiness, time spent in the world, time zones, and even by the amount of friends you bring to the gunfight. I have written copious amounts of words on this topic here, and I don't intend to rehash it. Suffice to say that I understand that AA belongs to the latter category of PvP - open world PvP - and understand that I will be outgunned and outgeared by people who are willing to spend tracts of cash to obtain a gearing edge. I don't expect balance, nor will I be weeping and gnashing my teeth on the forums when I eat gank after gank while I level up in the contested zones. I will simply collect my bruised avatar at the Statues of Nui, and head off again and try to use my wits to avoid a similar fate. The trade off for me will be to live in a world that is alive, where people till and work their fields, and trade convoys go rumbling along the dust-beaten tracks on route to far away lands. I have yet to venture onto the open sea in Archeage, yet watching from the cliffs as convoys prepare to embark to distant shores I have to confess to a romantic stirring in my breast. The landscape of AA is an exotic one, born from the shores of Korea, and now transplanted uncomfortably to the west. Like J3w3l, I love the Korean speaking NPCs, but more than this I like the guild advertisements that scroll in zone chat looking for people in several different languages. I have seen Russian, Filipino, Portugese and French so far, and this adds to the feeling of living in a strange land far different from anything I have experienced to date in a computer game. MMOs are best when they convey the feeling of organic, shifting life, and this world, for all its perils and the all too-common brutish idiocy associated with F2P and OWPvP, is alive.