Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Problem With Tier 14

The Sha of Fear is a terrible end-boss.

Having killed him on normal mode at least, I can say that the fight is.... okay. It's a bit more evocative, the symbolism used is appealing, the mechanics at least on the surface are engaging, but there is no follow-through on it. The fight begins exactly as it ends, it doesn't flow or change at any point.

The best fights, I think, tell a story. They begin in one place, end in another and along the way, they take you somewhere. Even if the story is cyclical in nature, it should vary enough to be worthy of the cycle and have enough depth worth telling. Tell Alysrazor for example, we were engaged with her before we ever pulled and though cyclical, every one of her phases is tied deeply in her rage and her elemental nature.

The Heroic Spine of Deathwing, on the other hand, is an example of a cyclical fight gone horribly wrong. The mechanics don't change as the fight progresses, they just become increasingly more frustrating to execute. It's purely a numbers game and there's nothing engaging about that. Sha of Fear is cut from the same cloth of uninteresting cycles.

We begin by standing on the platform. Tanks takes their place on the beacon, enveloped in a protective halo of light - evocative, if sentimental. The light guards everyone from the worst of the Sha's corruption while outside the beacon, we can see his twisted minions writhing about, and the corrupted Pandaren on their distant platforms. Then, we ourselves are contorted into Sha and sent to be killed by the Pandaren who we must defeat in turn to be returned to continue our fight.

And then that repeats, over and over again. Other than clearing the Crossbow men and the adds on the platform, this is a tank and spank fight.

Where is the flow? Where is the story? What do we learn from this encounter about the villain that we didn't already know?

Blizzard is capable of incredibly good storytelling in raids. We know this, from Ulduar and Karazhan cohesively, but also on a smaller scale. Consider the tight narrative of the Plagueworks. Or, if you want a single encounter, take Nefarian as an example in either incarnation or the Lich King. Each phase transition tells a story, it evokes a feeling, it progresses the arc of the character and shows us an aspect of that personality.

One of the problems here is that the Sha has no personality. By definition, it's a one-dimensional creature, and thus is incapable of presenting complexity as an individual. The only way to make the Sha personal, to give it gravitas and any sense of depth, is to imbue it with some purpose.

And that is exactly why Empress Shek'zeer in the Heart of Fear works brilliantly as the crowning achievement of this raid tier. She is the true end-boss in every way. Besides the fact that Heart of Fear as a whole is tuned perfectly (except maybe for Amber-shaper where Discipline priests are perhaps a bit over-powered) and the entire raid instance as a whole tells a story in addition to the individual bosses who have their own narratives,

Here, you can feel the Sha of Fear in all the rooms, you can smell him in the walls, see the corruption left behind and when you get to the Empress at last - she's mad with paranoia. We know, through the Klaxxi quest line how the ascendance of a new queen happens, and gnawing at that thought, that fear, the Sha has infiltrated her and made her this thing, crawling with shadows, overflowing with dark energies.

She begins in a rage, screaming stories of her own glory to deaf ears, and when she doesn't get the reception she wants, she summons her subjects to tear her audience down. Deprived of her coterie, she returns, deaf once again to her own doom, repeating her aggrandizing song. When death at last is evident, she panics and the fear grips her with both hands, furious for survival, she fights like a cornered animal, raging for life, throwing everything she has at us until we grant her the only mercy we can.

That is a story. That is a narrative. That is what makes a raid boss interesting.

And that is why the Sha of Fear is a terrible end-boss.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Change is constant

"What we experience in [game] ... belongs in the end just as much to the over-all economy of our soul as anything experienced 'actually'; we are richer or poorer on account of it."
- Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

I had been in the new guild for three months, feeling comfortable and at home, when I discovered on Wednesday that it was going to dissolve. After going through denial, anger, and sorrow, I arrived at bargaining and realized that I might be able to continue raiding if took the offer dangling in front of me, and without thinking twice, I grasped it.

Today, I know my decision wasn't the most ethical one, but I had also just spent three months taking a huge step from my family of friends into a new environment, I had just begun to feel comfortable, I had just come out of my shell, and to find it all evaporating around me with no prospects in sight was a daunting one, and I clung to the offer I received. I'm not proud, but neither am I ashamed.

There are a lot of bitter and angry feelings on both sides, least of all the leadership that split off, and I can completely empathize with both sides of the coin here. I've been the person who logged in, raid night after raid night, making phone calls and sitting in Trade for hours trying to fill a group to get off the ground, I've been the one asking, "Why did we wipe?" and faced a wall of silence, I've been the one to deal with people showing up not prepared, not ready, not aware of strategies, not willing to play a certain way, and try to keep the group going and get kills - and I've said, "I'm done, I can't do this anymore." I know what that's like.

I also know what it's like to be on the receiving end of being abandoned, logging in one day to raid and find most of the team and guild just leaving in droves and you're left there trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

After being in both of these situations, there is only one thing I know for certain - and that's the fact that ultimately, you have to play this game for yourself. If you're playing to keep other people happy, you're going to make it poisonous for yourself. There are ways of making things more or less contentious, ways of trying to explain yourself or not, doing it in the middle of the night or in the stark light of day, trying to avoid hurt, for yourself or others, whatever - there are a million reasons, a million ways, a million things and at the end, we're just pixels on a screen.

And we're more that that. We're people, we're friends, we're voices over Mumble and names on a screen, we're jokes and stories and extensions of identity, our avatars are our personality-fingers wiggling about in the soup of social interaction - and when self-interest, stress, conflict, unresolved desires, frustration and fear combine, people act irrationally. They make decisions that are safest for themselves, and while people do get hurt in the process, maybe ripping off a band-aid is better than picking out stitches one at a time.

I don't know.

Faced with a situation, I picked a side that was best for me. Three months is a blink of an eye in the face of years of Warcraft. But a blink of an eye is enough to leave flash-images in your brain for a long, long time. Names and voices and faces and stories that stay with you, and guilt is the weight that lets you know that maybe you didn't do everything right, maybe there was something better that could have been done.

After being left in the dust once, holding the ruins of a guild in my hands, I didn't want to be in the same place again. So, I left before that could happen, and in so doing, I allowed others to endure what I could not.

I spent the money, I transferred my characters, and I raided last night.

Beyond that, I don't know.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Raid Engagement

A raid is defined by its bosses, the complexity of encounters, the design and scale and scope of the place, how it guides us through the space and gives us a new environment to explore - but does a raid have to engage us emotionally? What part does that play in our enjoyment of a raid?

While browsing YouTube at work during lunch (as one does), I found along the list of "see also" videos on the side, a link to a Lich King kill video. It has been a long, long time since I did that fight, and much longer since I really thought about it, but I thought - what the hell, I'll watch it again. And man, it really brought everything back in spades. The feeling of hopeless despair, the anguish and anger that Arthas brought out in me, the frustration of seeing him slip away time after time, while waiting to get a chance to take our own crack at him.

And we did, eventually, and we did kill him. I remember how jubilant and exhausted and satisfied I was after the ordeal, how happy to be done with a whole story, it felt like an arc was complete, a resolution was reached. That's what made Wrath the best expansion to date - it was about the god-damned story. That's what people remember, that's what got us engaged, and that's what the game resolved - it gave us a full-stop, at the end of the book. Close it, it's done. But of course, this is a franchise, and it needs to continue, so it did.

Cataclysm's failure I think, had more to do with following up Wrath. There was no way that they could personalize the terror of Deathwing the way the Lich King was personalized for us through the RTS games. We had (most of us, anyway) walked in his shoes, as a Paladin, then as a Death Knight. We came out the other side, and committed atrocities with him, killed Uther with him, raised Sylvanas as a Banshee from her dying breath - we did all this, and now we were back for vengeance. There was no way Deathwing could live up to that.

There is no raid in all of Cataclysm that comes close to Ice Crown Citadel in terms of emotional impact. Nothing carries the weight or gravity that the Citadel had. Even now, thinking of it, I feel nothing but melancholy as if I really did go to war there, even though I was just playing a video game. I left a piece of myself there, and I wrote a story to cement my relationship with the place.

Now, we have Pandaria, and I'm trying, so hard, to engage with the raids here as emotionally as I did the raids in Wrath - and I just can't do it. Part of it is the scope of things - it's just smaller in a lot of ways. We're raiding a tomb in Mogu'shan Vaults. That's it. Nothing noble or heroic about it, there's the thin veneer of trying to save Pandaria from the Guru'bashi as they try to get a weapon to use to regain the Thunder King but face it - we're mercenaries and treasure hunters. It does not inspire the hand-shaking awe of the Citadel.

Take then, the Heart of Fear - a lovely construction and a wonderful raid to explore and fight in, grand cathedral like rooms and lovely work all-around. But the stakes aren't there - we have only the most tenuous grasp of the Empress and while the Sha is a terrifying enemy, the engagement is recent. The ending of Jade Forest was amazing, but man, that didn't inspire me to lust after killing the Sha, especially after killing another Sha over and over again in Kun'lai.

Don't get me wrong, I'm loving the Hell out of these raids - some of the best fights in the game since Tier 11 and I'm super excited to kill them all. I just wish I felt for them the way I did for Arthas. Does anyone else need this kind of emotional and personal impact in the raid to really enjoy it on a visceral, sub-dermal  level? Can Blizzard put out another raid with that level of emotional impact?

I hold out hope.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Where have I been?

Buried up to my neck in raids, is where I've been.

Almost a month since I last wrote, and it's a bit of a shame - much of the normal-mode progression is already done, and I failed to document it. Ah, well. Still only about half-way through the tier, so there's more stuff to talk about.

Paladin Tanking
This is the best state the class has been in a long, long time. One of my biggest complaints throughout Cataclysm was that Vengeance had made Hit and Expertise irrelevant for tanks but with Active Mitigation, we've got a reason, not just to soft cap Expertise, but actually get up to 15% so we can skip Parries as well. That's unbelievably awesome.

For one, we put out tons and tons of damage. Seeing 200k+ DPS isn't unusual for me on certain fights, like Heroic Stone Guard, or Wind Lord. Even on Will of the Emperor I can manage to squeak into the top three for damage done and not to mention the unbelievable healing numbers I get from Light's Hammer, Sacred Shield and Seal of Insight. Word of Glory becoming a cool-down has lowered its overall numbers, but it's certainly a life-saver at times, healing me for nearly 50% of my health with a 5-stack of Bastion.

And I hope I'm not the only one swapping glyphs and talents in and out just about every fight to optimize my play-style for that particular boss. Suffice it to say, paladin tanking is unbelievably fun right now. I have half an article written as an introduction to Paladin tanking that I'll be posting shortly.

The raids continue apace, bosses die, they drop purples, and we move on. Heart of Fear continues to impress, though the bugs (get it?) are frustrating, especially when they keep us stagnant when we should  be progressing. Last night, Wind Lord kept enraging because Recklessness failed to stack on the boss despite a number of different things we tried, and we finally gave up and went to bed only to find a blue post on the bug-report that it is, indeed, a bug.

It's one thing for a raid to fail because we misunderstand a mechanic or lack the gear, or whatever, but to fail to a bug after hours of attempts is just plain frustrating on a helpless level. Especially since it's a new bug introduced after a number of guilds had already killed the boss so we're working with a handicap at this point.

To further the point, there is the humiliation - hyperbole, to say the least, but I can think of no better word -  the embarrassment of having to go in and clear the second half of Heart of Far on LFR before I've even gotten to see the Empress or the Amber-Shaper on normal-modes. It distresses me - but it also motivates me to push ahead and try for more this week. Though, of course, this week, we venture back into Mogu'shan for some Heroic raiding, but I hope we'll be able to make things work in Heart of Fear as well.

We'll see.

Heart of Fear
Despite the bugs (heh) mentioned above, the raid itself is quite fun. Vizir and Blade Lord are both good fights and continue the strand of personal responsibility and execution that Mogu'shan began. If you as a raider are asleep at the wheel, it's going to be difficult to carry you or to kill the boss at least in this phase of the tier. Garalon took a bit of doing, but we did kill him twice - coming excruciatingly close at times before wiping to the enrage. My favorite wipe was the one where he went immune with a single hit-point left on a leg while he had less than 2% health left. Did you know his enrage Crush goes through immunities? Heart-breaking. He died the next night without too much of a bother.

That's two out of three excellent raids already and tonight, Terrace opens up. I'm disappointed not to be going in there at 7:00pm server tonight, but such is the way of things. Perhaps next week if we manage to kill the Empress this week - though that seems remarkably optimistic. This staggered release was excellent, but for this two-week buffer between Heart of Fear and Terrace - I feel that another four-week gap would have been excellent, and it would give guilds the time to kill all normal modes and get a couple of heroic kills in before focusing on Terrace.

Content is coming too fast - and 5.1 is on the horizon! Perhaps I'm getting too old for this.

And lastly, I was made a full member about a month ago. I don't know if I mentioned it or not, I don't think I did, but there we go. It might seem amusing, but I was a bit nervous - I know I'm a good player, but I don't know that I'm great and part of the nerves came from knowing that I had nowhere to go if I didn't cut it here. Regardless, I'm very glad to be in Occasional Excellence, and very glad that I made the cut. One of the big reasons for this change was that I had issued a challenge to myself - could I play well enough to be in a hardcore guild and remain, if not on the cutting-edge, then in the vanguard of raiding guilds? The answer, I suppose, is that I can. It's gratifying.

As one of my favorite Sandman comics said about falling from mountains, "Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly."