Burning Crusade– End of the Azerothian Endgame?

Since we rerolled and started a new small five person group on a new server a few months ago, I didn’t really need WoW’s long-awaited Burning Crusade expansion to make my gaming life whole again. Been playing a little EQ2, doing a beta, and of course leveling alts on the new server to aid my new main’s economy.

So, I wasn’t really focused on digging my 60s out of mothballs to dive into BC. Nonetheless, curiosity did get the better of me and in addition to my launch day exploration of the Dranei, I dusted off my 60 pally, Megis, and stepped through the Dark Portal to see what BC had to offer.

Through the Portal, Darkly

I hooked up with a few of my friends from our old group to check it all out. We stepped through the portal and were immediately taken by the new visuals. Hellfire peninsula resembles the Blasted Lands, but the sky over Outland is more reminiscent of that of EQ2 or even Eve. You can see what it looks like on the current title graphic.

After stepping through the portal, we gaped at the demonic permabattle among NPCs that rages on the steps leading down from the portal. We were certainly not in Kansas anymore. The initial go-see-a-guy quest led us to the initial flightpath for the zone and instructed us to report to the quest hub at Honor Hold via griffon. Blizzard cleverly gave us an opportunity to survey the new landscape on our way to post-60 adventure.

Honor Hold is quest rich and was crowded and busy with experience starved 60s. Can’t click on the NPC vendor crowded. Even this crowded, there really wasn’t any appreciable lag. Frame rates dipped, but overall it seemed to be handling the load. Likewise, the dynamic spawn system seemed to be more or less keeping up with the demand for things to smash and collect in the not-so-noob zone.

We picked up a few of the initial quests and headed out to see how tough the new world would be.

I killed your god

We were all a bit disappointed when we picked up the initial quests—kill x, collect y, go-see-a-guy. Still for casual players like us, it was amusing to see Über 1337 3pkk Playrz reduced to kill ten rats status. They might have been taking Rags down yesterday, but now they’re collecting them.

So we thought, kinda ho hum until we noticed the rewards. We definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore. Despite the criticisms that WoW is already overly-gear dependent, Blizzard itself had noted that BC would require a significant step up in gear for players to be successful in Outland.

Likewise, Blizzard also needed to create sufficient incentive to lure the Über 1337 players out of Azerothian endgame content and into Outland to make it a success. This will undoubtedly have a giant impact on what used to be the Azerothian endgame—for casual players and raiders alike.

A few examples:

Megis the pally was basically the guild blacksmith and a solo alt I took to 60. He had collected some Lightforge set gear and a few blues, but nothing spectacular. I have to be in a particularly tolerant mood to subject myself to PUGatory.

Megis had been shield poor for some time. He had an Ironhide Shield with an int buff he had picked up off the auction house. Nothing special but serviceable and it looked cool. He had lusted after the Sacred Protector which was a 100% guaranteed quest reward from the Blightcaller raid quest in Eastern Plaguelands, but never got around to organizing or getting into a PUG to do it.

Next best would have been a Rattlecage Buckler which drops from Rattlecage in Scholomance. Of course, that means you need to get a group to do Scholomance, the shield must drop (~10% drop rate) and you’ve got to win the roll or be gifted the drop. Because of the dearth of good shields, many pallys/shammies would find themselves competing with warriors for this drop.

So what does BC offer up? Landslide Buckler as a quest reward for killing 20 orcs just outside Honor Hold. Green shield. Dude.

Now hold on to your pantaloons. After our regular little group disintegrated last year, our tank decided to at least complete his warrior Valor (Tier 0.5) armor set. To his credit, he set out across PUGatory to seek the rarified drops from Strat, Scholo and UBRS. Early on he got pretty lucky and completed most of his set from fortuitous drops and apparently bearable PUGs. Then the dry spell set in. 80 Baron runs through Strat (honest and for true) and still no Legplates of Valor. As a result, he was wearing one of the many pairs of Lightforge Legplates that had dropped.

So what does BC offer up for our intrepid warrior in the first 30 minutes of the expansion? Magistrate’s Greaves as a quest reward for picking up 8 pieces of wood and 8 pieces of metal off the ground outside the quest hub. Ouch.

And on and on. In our first hour of play in BC, we gleefully discarded more than a few of our most cherished and hard won (at least for casual players) gear in favor of significant upgrades that rained out of the sky like manna from heaven. I hear the situation is not much different even with old world epics.

I hearthstoned back to a deserted IF to unload bags, and do some other admin stuff wearing my new gear. At the mailbox, another pally was happening by decked out in his complete Lightforge set. No mean feat at all. Not being Über, I’m still impressed by stuff like that. He was walking by then stopped abruptly near me. I could only assume he was inspecting my still unfamiliar looking gear (the shield most likely as it has a completely different look than most Azerothian shields).

I took the opportunity to inspect his gear. All Lightforge and blues and included an Intricately Runed Shield which drops from Ras Frostwhisper in the lower levels of Scholomance. Not an easy fight, not all groups fight Ras and about a 12% drop. A nice shield. A better shield for a warrior than a pally, but good shields were few and far between. You took what came along and liked it. I could almost feel his sense of disappointment as the moment wore on. I killed his god.

Baron doesn’t live here any more?

Since we are all playing with a new lowbie static group we were thinking about what the path to BC looks like for our newer characters. It took about five seconds for one of us to ask, “Why would anyone do Strat, Scholo or ever try to complete their dungeon sets?” And we didn’t really have an answer.

Now I like five person groups and Scholo, Strat, UBRS and Dire Maul have always been both interesting and fun even if a bit challenging for those undergeared or too far below 60. But as relatively undergeared 60s running around solo or in small oneseys or twoseys, the gear obtainable in Outland may well completely trivialize these dungeons (and to an even greater degree the 20 and 40 person raid content in Azeroth as well. I can see a jump from Sunken Temple or BRD straight through to Outland once a player hits 58.

How long until we see “Looking for a few 70s to run me through Onyxia. Will pay 5G.” in chat? I’m not really sure what Blizzard has in mind for the world left behind. As our little group becomes “portal worthy” I wonder if we’ll bother to run the former higher level instances in anything other than a “Pirates of the Carribean” ride fashion. Do it once, see it, move on. The Baron may get very lonely indeed.

 

Dranei First Impressions

As I previously posted, I ended up actually getting The Burning Crusade installed on launch day and logged into play. Since I didn’t have a high level character on the server where I game with a small regular group of friends, I thought I’d go ahead and see what the Dranei had to offer.

To be honest, I didn’t really expect much. In recent weeks, I had seen the some of the NPC cloven hoofed, squid faced aliens loitering about Azeroth but was rather ho-hum about them. “So they get to be Shaman huh? Whatever.” Worth rerolling another alt (even for chronic alt-itis sufferer)? Novelty item. Outland is where the action will be.

Fortunately, first impressions are often wrong and I had sold Blizzard short on what the Dranei Experience had to offer.

Squid Head

At the character creation screen, no real surprises. If character creation takes more than 2 or 3 minutes in WoW, you might want to check your pulse. Lets face it, this is one of WoW’s many Achilles’ heels. Its also one of its secret strengths. Users are not overwhelmed by choices (I’ll say) so they get into the game quickly and the limited number of models and textures dramatically reduces hardware requirements, improving performance.

The BIG news for Alliance side players is the addition of the Shaman class available only to the Dranei. The addition of this class alone to any of the existing races would have been cause for celebration enough, but I suppose Blizzard wanted to make sure that the Dranei had a killer app in the form of a unique class to fuel the Dranei’s success.

Launch day certainly found the Crash Site littered with dozens of young shamen. Ever the iconoclast, I decided I’d roll something else– this time a hunter named Sarnoc. The Dranei home area occupies a newly available set of islands off the west coast of Kalimdor and is accessible to other races by boat from Auberdine for those with the expansion.

One other note, the Dranei voices and emotes are very eastern Eurpoean. Or at least eastern European as perceived by Americans probably living too near Hollywood. The Dranei sound like a cross between Borat, Pavel Chekov from Star Trek and Boris and Natasha from Bullwinkle. Still, they are amusing in the same way that the other Blizzard race archetypes are.

One nice item, the Dranei have an innate racial heal over time ability with a reasonable cooldown time that many starting players should find helpful and it scales as you level.

The Noob Zone

After the obligatory introductory video, Sarnoc zoned into the noob zone called the Crash Site to find literally dozens of other new Dranei stacked up on the zone point. Before I took a step, I looked around at the spectacle before me. Hundreds of new Dranei running too and fro gloriously pummelling small furry flowering snarling things into dust. Not exactly immersive, but a fun spectacle nonetheless.

I didn’t play on the original launch date, but Northshire Abbey, Coldridge Valley and Shadowglen must have been something similar. Who knows, maybe not nearly as bad. The original WoW launch didn’t have 8 million subscribers in the can waiting for its launch…

A quick note on “lore.” The Dranei have a bit of a unique story and I was quite surprised at how well Blizzard integrated the crashed castaway space alien story into the existing Warcraft story line. Likewise, in typical Blizzard fashion, their story and style are tightly integrated into the early noob zone experience: the Dranei are stranded crash survivors, get to work aiding survivors and getting your society back on the offensive.

Even tough crowded, Blizzard seems to have implemented a dynamic spawn rate in anticipation of the hordes (no pun) of new characters to be created in the Blood Elf and Dranei starting zones. After having visited the other side of the dark portal, its clear that something is afoot because there is no way ordinary static spawn rates could keep up with the onslaught of new characters. But even with that, the ranged classes were still at an advantage in the noob zone able to ninja needed spawns before the lumbering melee classes could close the distance. Still with dozens of characters on screen, no appreciable lag.

The Dranei follow the now familiar Blizzard guided quest track to equip your young character and learn basic skills. I still wish Blizzard would implement some kind of progression quest to avoid these early noob quests. Some of the lore provided is interesting, but I suspect many new Dranei are simply the nth alt started by experienced players. I would rather complete a learn about the Dranei quest to escape the noob zone than run through the usual kill-ten-rats and fedex quests.

We quickly completed the noob quests and headed out to the next area following the oh so helpful go-see-a-guy-somewhereelse-quest.

If you were a tree…

Most of the lowbie quests are the usual 1-10 fair wrapped in a Dranei package. Fresh enough to be entertaining, but still rather utilitarian covering familiar ground. The one whimsical exception is a quest chain that involves intrigue and treachery between a gnome faction and goblins. One step requires donning a disguise as a tree to overhear a conversation. Without providing any more detail, suffice it to say, this was amusing and a welcome departure.

The Exodar

As we neared level ten, we progressed nearer and neared the Dranei home city, The Exodar. The Exodar is the remains of the Dranei ship that crashed where it lay and forms the structure in which the city sits. Here is where the one can appreciate the depths to which Blizzard applied its highly stylized aesthetic. Simply put, the The Exodar is like no other city in Azeroth. It departs from the primarily fantasy stone castle feel for a distinctly sci-fi theme. Transparent walkways, holographic statuary and flowing light effects in abundance definitely give the place a completely new feel and yes I did get the impression that this was a ship rather than a terrestrial building.

I found myself just walking around gaping at the place. If you have no other interest in the Dranei, I would pay a visit to the Exodar for the experience.

Generally the city itself is laid out more in the fashion of Ironforge rather than Stormwind or Darnassus making navigation easy with most areas of interest arrayed in sub zones around a central hub. Conveniently there is a side door that leads to the main dock with connects to Auberdine.

Bottom line

So far, I’m pretty amused with the Dranei. They are still somewhat of a novelty to me, but for someone with alt-itis I’ll probably continue to play my Dranei from time to time. Eventually I’m sure I’ll roll a Shaman to play the class on the alliance side, but I think I’ll wait til the line goes down a bit.

Gnome on the Range– Measuring Azeroth Redux

Recently, Tobold posited the seemingly innocent question of “How big is Azeroth?” With all the recent focus on WoW and Blizzard’s release of the Burning Crusade Expansion, and how “much” it added to the game, I thought I’d take a few stabs at the original question.

First of all, recognize that this is purely an exercise of amusement by someone who has stomped around Azeroth since release. Azeroth certainly feels like a big place. Even after casually playing WoW since release with a few level 60’s, there are still a few places I haven’t been (not counting raid instance content).

For this first post, I’ll just take a stab at the Big Question. In later posts, I’ll apply the same methodology to other questions like how big are the major cities, how big are instances relative to the zones they occupy, etc.

Size Matters

I think Tobold’s basic measurement methodology based on the travel time constant is a good one. Debate can be had over whether a hero’s run speed should more like that of a professional marathoner (12 mph/19.3 kph) or a decent hiker (2 mph/3.2 kph).

While several posters noted our hero’s, well, heroic abilities, none mentioned something I’ll call the “Heroic Fantasy Distortion Factor” or HFDF built into all games. HFDF is a distortion of reality that simply results from the necessity of making a game’s proportions, temporal and spatial, “unrealistic” in order to be playable. This is similar to the way that a “map” of the solar system must either represent the planets in proper proportion or the distances between them, but not both.

Here’s a post on exactly what I mean. If the earth was a peppercorn and the sun was a ball 8 inches/20 cm in diameter, then the sun and earth would need to be about 26 yards/meters apart to be accurately depicted. This hardly makes for a useful map, but demonstrates what I’m getting at.

This used to be a bigger deal in old RTS games like Age of Empires, etc. Seemingly giant chariots would be produced by disproportionately small stables, cross a presumably great distance in only a few seconds to destroy the enemies equally tiny buildings — a concession to a quick pace map-based game play, but no one seemed to mind so much. Likewise, all turn-based games engage in similar time dilation.

This isn’t bad. Few would likely play a medieval/fantasy MMO based in Europe and walk their character from Rouen in Normandy to Rennes in Bretagne (about 180 miles/300 km) in real time to have a meaningful game experience. And that’s only two cities in two “zones” of medieval France. Even EQ didn’t dare approach this level of realism. Likewise, no one wants to play a medieval/fantasy MMO based in a geographic area that only feels like its the size of the Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom (47 acres/19 hectares).

Games typically use a number of methods to create the impression of world immensity while maintaining playability. Zone travel, teleportation and well, willing suspension of disbelief results in a certain amount of space and time dilation. Zones are smaller than the RL area they might represent, travel doesn’t take as long as it “should” in RL. Bottom line, there is a fudge factor that designer’s use to keep the game playable as a pure concession to gameplay. That’s what I’m using the HFDF to represent here. But I digress.

Stormwind is a big city by Azerothian standards, but lets face it, we can run from the front gate to the Tram in the Dwarven District in about 2 and a half minutes. And the tram from Stormwind to Ironforge only takes 1 minute, end to end, presumably crossing under the zones of Elwynn Forest, the Burning Steppes, Searing Gorge and Dun Morogh to Ironfoge. Where I live, I can’t even get to the grocery store from my house in less than 5 minutes.

The Method

So, building on Tobold’s experiment, here’s my method for measuring Azeroth. Using addons that provide in game map coordinates and run speed, I’ll measure the width of Kalimdor by riding from the eastern tip of Tanaris through Thousand Needles and Feralas to the dock where the boat to Feathermoon Stronghold departs. I’ll call the distance between any two x,y points on the coordinate system a standard “unit.”

  • I’ll plot my course as directly as possible from the each zone’s starting location to its exit location along the route noting the x,y coordinates of each start and end point and the total travel time.
  • Using the wonderful world of trigonometry courtesy of Pythagoras, I’ll calculate the total east-west travel distance for each zone.
  • Repeat the second step for each zone or subzone and add the east-west travel distances together to give total east-west distance.
  • Measure a standard control run and ride speed (units per second).
  • Apply assumptions regarding run speed and the HFDF to arrive at a range of widths of Kalimdor.
  • Multiply by 3 (width x apparent height) to approximate the total area of Kalimdor.
  • Multiply by 2 (assume Eastern Kingdoms is equal in area to Kalimdor) to approximate the total area of Azeroth.

The Results

Total travel time from east to west Kalimdor: 15:08 at 171% run speed along a roughly diagonal path through each zone/subzone.

Total travel time from east to west Kalimdor at 100% run speed: 25:58 or 1,558 seconds.

Length of total path: 198.7 units and the fox runs across four measured segments– Tanaris, Shimmering Flats, Thousand Needles and Feralas.

Total east-west distance traversed: about 137 units (Pythagoras FTW!).

100% Run speed expressed as a function of units: 0.3182 units per second (Control measured by a simple straight run).

Since we know how many “units” a character covers at normal run speed and we’ve calculated the total east west distance as a function of units, we just need to determine what a “unit” is, then just do the multiplication to get the total area of Kalimdor and by extension, Azeroth.

“Marathon” run speed (12 mph/19.3kph, or 17.6 fps/5.36 mps) means a unit would be about 55 feet or about 17 meters.

“Hiker” run speed (2mph/3.2kph, or 2.9fps/0.88mps) means a units would be about 9.2 feet or 2.79 meters.

These would be without any HFDF modification.

Assume HFDF=1 (no distortion):

If our heroes were capable of marathon run speed, Kalimdor would only be about 1.4 miles across (even shorter than Tobold estimated) and Azeroth would be about 3.81 square miles/9.77 square kilometers.

If only hikers, Azeroth would be about 0.15 square miles/0.39 square kilometers.

Assume HFDF=10:

Because I’m applying the HFDF to each dimension, areas increase 100 fold. So at HFDF=100, Azeroth would be about 381 square miles/977 square kilometers as marathoners, much less as hikers.

Assume HFDF=100:

Azeroth would be about 38,000 square miles or 97,000 square kilometers, as marathoners, much less as hikers.

Conclusions

On its face, Azeroth is a very very small place. If I can cross a “continent” in much less than a half hour on foot, either I’m a GOD, the place is small, or I need to suspend some of my disbelief for the sake of fantasy and pretend its bigger.

Not so ironically, the more “real” the assumptions were (i.e., hiker v. marathoner, less v. more HFDF) the smaller Azeroth became.

Looking on the bright side though, even at the low low estimate of 0.15 square miles for the whole of Azeroth, its STILL twice as big as the Magic Kingdom!

Bottom line for me, MMO worlds don’t need to be large, but they do need to feel large to be immersive. In this regard, I think WoW has succeeded in creating a world that definitely feels much larger than it “really is” even if it does feel much smaller than the game universes of other MMOs like EQ2 or especially Eve.

What makes a game world feel immense to you? Travel time? Zone diversity? Something else?

January 16, 2007, B.C.– The Launch

Snow Day

Tuesday turned out to be a snow day. Where we live, it doesn’t really snow, so almost any snow causes a general metropolitan shutdown. After the long weekend, I had expected a slow Tuesday, but about midday we all got an email saying that the office wasn’t going to remain closed because of the weather. Of course, I was already in the office.

So, I figured I’d get home early, log on to WoW and see what hijinx were happening with the launch of Burning Crusade since midnight. Rumors of the seas boiling and fire raining from the skies along with 1000 persons server queues, lag and incessant crashes would be something to behold. Feel the wrath of 8 million enraged players all focusing on their mental energies on Irvine, CA. No company could sustain itself in the face of such bad juju.

My wife and I play WoW with a static group of long time friends. We’ve played since release and have some 60s on another server, but we recently formed a new five person group on another server, so we aren’t near BC level yet. We hadn’t really planned on “getting ready for launch day” as we were having too much fun with our little group and, quite frankly, would be more than willing to sit out launch day and all that we feared it would entail. Nonetheless, my wife ordered a couple copies of BC from Amazon last week and assumed we’d get them “whenever.”

As I got home from early snow day, there it was. The brown box. The temptation was just too much to pass up. I had read a few entries from the MMOGosphere on the pessimism surrounding the release and a few regarding the install so I was actually more interested in comparing notes on how the mechanics would work that actually diving into the new content. I didn’t expect to get to BC-proper for a while when our group advanced.

The Install

I started the install about 4 p.m. Pacific. Not really prime time, but certainly getting there for east coast servers (and one on which we play). Out of the box, 4 cds. Pop in #1 and we’re off. All installed without a hitch. A few minutes later I see the game launch and voila!, a dialog popsup asking whether I want to upgrade my account for BC. I click yes, enter my cd key and the patcher launches.

As MMO veterans know, “launch” day means “patch” day. In Blizzard’s case, the patcher has been notoriously slow. To Blizzard’s credit, they had warned us that the most recent substantial patch would have to be reapply after the install, so it would be faster if you didn’t delete it. I let it run, it found my 2.0.2 to 2.0.3 patch file, paused at 99% for a minute, then applied the patch. I launched the game again and prepared to wait for the “real” patch I knew was coming. The patcher launched again to download a surprisingly short patch of about 3MB which took a few minutes. This was more Blizzard speed– 5 minutes for a 5 second dl– but I was still pretty impressed so far. It was still only about 25 minutes since I opened the box.

The patcher finished and I clicked “play.”

I watched the cinematic trailer. Nice, but hey, its a trailer. They’ve been nice since Ms. Pac-man. You can’t play a trailer. Password, no queue (!) and boom, I’m at the character screen. Just about 30 minutes from cardboard to Azeroth. Now I’m very impressed.

I quickly logged on to my dwarf priest in Ironforge to see if there were any obvious issues. In game, folks running to a fro outside the bank and auction house, the occasional naked dancing gnome/dwarf/elf/human. No lag, nothing out of the ordinary. Since I didn’t have any high level characters on that server, I thought I’d roll up a Dranei and see how the new starting area looked and how the Dranei played. I’ll post my initial impressions of that separately.

The Score

My bottom line. Blizzard 1, pessimism 0. Great job Blizzard.

I’m sure there will be other stories and issues as more folks dive in, but I’ve got to put this up there with the Y2K as one of the greatest nonevents I’ve had the chance to experience.