Tuesday 28 January 2014

Enchanting and ilvl

I'm sure you noticed in a recent patch that the ilvl restrictions on enchantments (and other item enhancements) have been dropped. I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect it originated in the problems of enchanting heirloom items.

The problem with heirloom items is this: they are all nominally ilvl 1. That meant that enchantments that had ilvl restrictions could not be placed on heirloom items. Blizzard had three options in dealing with this:

  • Do nothing. Leave heirloom items and item enhancements as they are. This wasn't a terrible option, as a matter of fact. It would have meant that heirloom items couldn't have used the latest enchantments, because they were all targeted at ilvl 417 or better items. People had to make do with vanilla enchants and enhancements. While these may have been fine for low-level toons, they were not so useful at higher levels.
  • Scale the ilvl of heirloom items with character level. So, a level 10 character's heirlooms might be level 10, instead of level 1,and the same heirloom items on a level 80 might be ilvl 200, for instance. This would mean that the character could progress in the same way as every other character, re-enchanting gear as the gear they had breached the various ilvl barriers for enchanting and other enhancements.
  • Remove ilvl restrictions on enchantments, and instead scale the effect of the enchantment with character level. This is the solution that Blizzard chose. It has one big advantage for heirloom wearers: once a top-level enchant is applied, it need never be replaced. It just scales with character level, so it is very convenient for such characters. However, the scaling has a limit. For instance a Burning Crusade enchantment, originally designed for a level 70 character, never scales beyond level 70. It is capped at its effect on a level 70 character.

I'm sure that this convenience is the desired outcome for Blizzard. However it has had one or two unintended consequences. It starts with rare enchantments (such as Enchant Weapon - Spellpower, for instance) that were highly desired, as they were the best enchantments you could get for both heirlooms and low-level twinks. This meant that enchanters actively sought those rare enchantments and would pay dearly for them, which in turn drove adventurers to hunt them down in the world (in effect, it encouraged people to play content that they might otherwise not have seen). In particular, PvP players keenly sought out such enchantments.

That was then. Now PvE heirloom wearers just buy the top level enchantment, for convenience. It scales all the way to 90, whereas as noted, mid-level and low-level enchantments stop scaling before then. For PvP players, the calculation is a little more tricky, but their exact level will often lead them to pick the top-level enchantment, as well. The demand for mid-level and low-level enchantments is seriously reduced. Not to put too fine a point on it, sales of such enchantments have fallen off a cliff. As a result those already crafted were (and still are) being sold off much more cheaply than they used to be, and the crafters are not making any more.

This doesn't only apply to rare enchantments, though it is more pronounced with them. It applies to all low-level and mid-level enchantments. Even those who aren't willing to pay top-dollar for the rarest and best enchantments for their level, and would previously have bought a common mid-level enchantment are buying top-level enchantments, which are more easily found at auction and scale all the way to 90. Or they aren't buying enchantments at all. For levelling has become so much easier nowadays that fewer and fewer levellers are bothering to enchant their gear at all.

So the first consequence is that crafters are not crafting these enchantments (much). Nobody wants them. This reinforces the impression that crafting from level 1 to level 599 is a waste of time and money. There are few enchantments left at lower levels that are selling well (though some still survive, for their beauty rather than their utility). And of course, fewer people are hunting for the recipes.

The second major consequence is that with lower demand for lower level enchantments, there is lower demand for lower-level enchanting materials. But the supply hasn't changed much. The result is that the price of such enchanting mats is also in freefall. And it isn't just enchantments that this applies to. It's all permanent enhancements, such as spellthreads, gems, armor kits and so on. Low level characters are earning less from instances because the mats aren't pulling in as much money as before. Of course, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I expect this trend to continue, and for Blizzard to extend it to other items. What's to stop potions, elixirs and flasks being treated in the same way? Under the covers, heirloom gear is already being scaled, and its ilvl is also being scaled in a hidden way, so heirloom wearers can queue for dungeons that have ilvl restrictions on them. What's to stop armour being scaled in the same way?

Monday 13 January 2014


Last night I dreamt I went to Tamriel again. It seemed to me I stood by the launcher leading to the login screen, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

The Elder Scrolls Online's weekend beta, and on Saturday morning, I remembered I hadn't downloaded it, so I went off with my weekend beta key to create an account and try it out. I didn't count on the size of the download. The launcher downloaded fast enough, a mere 5 minutes. But when I went to run it, and it started the download proper, I knew I was in for a long wait. It was huge! I'm not sure exactly how huge now, but it was a couple of dozen gigabytes. And it was downloading at a mere 200 kB/s. It took the whole weekend to download. I finally got in on Sunday night - well Monday morning is more accurate - when I should have been in bed.

But it had the familiar look and feel of the Elder Scrolls: WASD movement, body rotation using the mouse, 'E' for interactions. Combat (I only tried melee) similar Skyrim. And a dark setting, both figuratively and literally. For you begin your journey as a dead body. A wretch sacrificed to the Daedric prince Molag Bal. Awakening behind bars in the caverns of Coldharbour, missing something. Ah yes. Missing ...  my soul.

A breakout! Running into the caverns with the others, looking for weapons, searching every urn and chest for an advantage. Most of them only contain broth or porridge. How do you equip things again? Ah, that's it. Now I remember. Run now, run! Run towards the 'V'. Run toward your quest's end.

The opening scenario is very much in the MMO lone hero tradition (thousands of people playing a single-player game together). As far as I could tell, each of us lost souls was on their own quest, unable to help each other. I didn't mind. My big fear of about the Elder Scrolls Online is not Molag Bal's hell. No. L'enfer, c'est les autres. My big fear is other people breaking the immersive virtual world that is Nirn with anal jokes and lolspeak. There was none of that last night - I logged on too late to see many others, and I never figured out if there even exists a zone chat channel. Of course, I want to engage with others in Tamriel. But I hope the introduction sets us all in a frame of mind that will help us stay in the world, in character.

You/'ll remember that Skyrim has a lot of voice acting. So it was in Coldharbour. I'm sure I recognized the voices of John Cleese and Michael Gambon.

By the time I got out of the caverns, I was too tired to continue. And this morning, I can no longer access the server. The beta weekend is over. Was it a dream?

Thursday 9 January 2014

On Choice

Dàchéng the mage in Azeroth was discussing morality yesterday. Today it is my turn. Me, her alter ego on Earth.

The boundaries of Dàchéng's world are set by Blizzard. Within those, she must make moral choices. But she can only make choices that are allowed by Blizzard. She can no more choose to attack King Varian Wrynn than I on Earth can choose to cast arcane barrage on a passing cyclist. The physics of these two worlds are different, and so are the moral choices available to the inhabitants of these two worlds. Like Saxsymage's rogue Saiphy, Dàchéng would like to help Vanessa Van Cleef. They cannot. The choice to do this is unavailable to them, just as the choice of taking Lordaeron back from the undead is not available to us, despite the efforts of many RP guilds on many realms. Though the adventurers of Azeroth wield unimaginable power, and can kill gods with the power of their thoughts, they cannot fix the gate in Lordaeron. They can't even chop a nearby tree down to fashion into a door. Those choices simply do not exist in Azeroth.

Sometimes we, the players on Earth, are reminded that some of the choices we can make on Earth are not available in Azeroth. That's when the game reminds us that we are just playing a game. That's one of the ways in which immersion breaks. The art of creating a great virtual world is to minimize these moments, by making it seem as if we have sufficient choice in Azeroth to direct our characters as our Earthly morals would dictate such a character would behave, or as we would behave if we were that character. And when we have the ability to make such choices, this is when we feel flow most, this is when we are most immersed.

Importantly, we bring our earthly morals into the make-believe world of the game, and (when we are fully immersed in the game) imbue the characters of the game with reality. We believe that these coloured dots on the computer screen are people. For of course it is not immoral to press F1 and make some coloured dots disappear. It's only when in the flow of the game that we can suffer moral quandaries by confusing these coloured dots with real people, and by confusing pressing F1 with ripping out their hearts.

A few years ago, Brenda Romero (Brenda Braithwaite as she was then) made a very interesting game called Train. In this game, you load yellow figurines into boxcars of a train, and then move your train along its course to its destination. Impeding your progress are a number of randomly drawn cards that can slow you down or derail you, free some of the figurines, and so on. When you reach your destination, its name is revealed as Auschwitz.

When described baldly like that, it may not evoke the same strong emotions in you as it did in the players. That's because they were immersed into the milieu by the board and its setup and by the gameplay, which were chosen to subconsciously evoke the Nazi era and put the players in the zone. You can read and watch an interview about it on the Wall Street Journal. What is fascinating to me is that, when players discovered what was going on in the game, they reacted as if those yellow figurines were real living, breathing people. They felt guilty about transporting the figurines to Auschwitz, and they tried to use the rules to free them. They were in the flow, immersed.

Of course, nobody dies. They are yellow figurines, not real people. But when you are immersed in the game, in any game, you treat it as real, and its rules as immutable like the laws of physics. Thus is is that people cry when their figurines reach the final destination, and are elated when they can use the rules to free the figurines or redirect the train. Yes. Even when they understand what's going on, they often still stick to the rules, trying to use them to subvert the final solution (rather than simply picking up the boxcars, emptying the figurines out, packing up the game and going home).

It is the same in Azeroth. We players are immersed in the game to the point of imbuing the citizens of Westfall with real lives, and of feeling evil when we kill the innocent. In fact, the point of the game is immersion in the virtual world of Azeroth, it certainly isn't for the exciting game-play.

But how do the inhabitants of this world feel? I know this is rather like asking if the yellow figurines are afraid or not. And yet it's a question that makes sense. If you were, in real life, in the situation that your toon is in, and you had her powers and abilities and history, what would you do? The answer to that is what pushes us to continue to play (rather than moving on to playing Tetris, for instance, whose moment-to-moment game-play is rather more intricate). We want to be immersed, but we can't help being Earthlings.

So when we are faced with a ludic choice that does not include the option we would like have (such as giving free candles to kobolds, and arranging to buy their ore), we players feel frustrated, and sometimes are brought out of our immersive state. But would our characters feel frustrated? Would they feel any more frustrated at not being able to help Vanessa  Van Cleef than we would at not being able to polymorph our neighbours? It just never occurred to me (before now) to want to polymorph my earthly neighbour. Perhaps in a world where the gods (Blizzard in the case of Azeroth) have not made some choices physically possible, our characters would be as unaware of the missing choice as we are about polymorph. That is to say, they might hypothetically amuse themselves imagining how great a world would be that allowed such a choice, but they know that in their world, it's all just fantasy.

Wednesday 8 January 2014


Jana over at I Like Pancakes is worried about the morality of killing 30 people in order to investigate and solve a double murder. I agree. There are many such examples of immoral quests - immoral, or at least disagreeable, to the adventurer who has been asked to undertake them (for instance my own poor friend Paoquan). I remember DEHTA asking me to kill some poor starving people in Northrend, to save the buffalo mammoth from being turned into dinner for their families. To bring the immorality of it into sharp relief, the very next quest in the area is to kill the self-same mammoths to provide hides to cover some gnome's mechanical device.

Jana already mentioned how she felt about Vanessa van Cleef: she wanted to be able to help her, but due to the linear nature of the on-rails world that is Azeroth, she was unable. I sympathize. I felt the same about both her and her father, Edwin. I felt thoroughly ashamed that I helped Thrall escape from prison and killed Alliance guardsmen to do it (I will never do this instance again on any alt), and I was unhappy about killing members of the Scarlet Crusade/Scarlet Onslaught, whose aims I thoroughly agree with (even if their leadership had been infiltrated by our enemies).

We are not allowed to behave differently, though. I cannot join the Scarlet Crusade, much as I would like to. Its members are red to me and attack me on sight (members of the Zandalar tribe also attack me on sight, despite the fact that I am supposedly exalted with them). No doubt many orc adventurers felt troubled by helping Garrosh steal the Divine Bell, while other orcs must feel terrible about betraying him. What can they do about it, though? We are all on rails.