Friday, February 16, 2018

Some Thoughts on Hearthstone's Dungeon Runs

Gaming can be met with a fair bit of press from time to time, such as with the recent loot box controversy. In this regard, free to play games are some of the most egregious offenders when utilizing such a system unethically largely due to how mobile games, many of which have the very similar gacha, operate. Hearthstone is not innocent in this regard and while it may be similar to the physical trading card games, that doesn't change the fact there's both a pay to win element and card packs with poor minimum rewards and thus a poor return on investment (either of time or money). Since the latter point was a bit easier to resolve, it served as the basis for my article on improving Hearthstone's monetization.

However, instead of writing yet an article with a strongly negative tone and ranting about various related topics, I instead wanted to highlight Hearthstone's Dungeon Run that was added in the Kobolds and Catacombs expansion since, while my opinions are that original in this regard, I think it's great single player content that helps to address issues with the game. I also think there's some useful concepts that can be derived and used to drive content development in games like WoW.

A Brief Description of Dungeon Runs

Dungeon Runs in Hearthstone currently consist of choosing a class to battle eight bosses in succession. Players start with a premade deck based on their class and receive a set of three cards after each match based on one of three thematics that the player chooses from. They also receive a treasure every few matches that consists of either a high-power card or a passive effect. To make each run different, each match draws from a large pool of bosses that, depending on how progressed the player is in the run, will be of a suitable power level. The run concludes with one of five end bosses that players can more consistently plan ahead for.

Dungeon Runs currently don't provide much in the way of a reward but can be played for free with cards the player may not own.

What Dungeon Runs Provide to Hearthstone Players

When it comes to benefits that Hearthstone players enjoy from Dungeon Runs, the first thing that comes to mind is that it serves as an always-present, free way to play with a full collection of cards. While deckbuilding is not as open as creating a deck from the collection, some restrictions such as how many duplicates of a card are allowed are relaxed much like in Arena, resulting in insanely powerful decks such as any decks that summon Jade Golems. This fact in addition to treasures allows players to go on a power trip for a brief time without frustrating a human opponent, though that doesn't mean there isn't great adversity that may bring that fun to an abrupt end. 

Fortunately, much like with Play Mode, players can participate in Dungeon Runs to their heart's content, which in itself is great since a feature like this in some other games may be gated by a lives system or the like. Instead, Dungeon Runs seem to rely on the replayability provided by the variance of cards and treasures offered to the player as well as the different boss encounters and sequences to encourage player participation.

What I can ultimately conclude is that Dungeon Runs most benefit players who have a small collection. This includes newer players, players who play sporadically, and players who spend little to no money on the game. However, I think all players benefit in some way even if they have a complete collection since there's a fairly exclusive experience to be had from Dungeon Runs, as I've described above.

Concepts to Derive for Other Games

The replayability of Hearthstone's Dungeon Runs that is provided by its somewhat procedural generation of content, which in itself shows random elements can lead to a positive player experience, is something that I could see adding to a lot of games. Doing so should improve the gameplay experience without much downside and while it may require meticulous planning to put such a system in place, once that is done various aspects can be tweaked to alter the experience and provide even more variance. For example, Dungeon Runs vary card offerings, card set offerings, treasure offerings, and bosses. Replacing or adding new entities to each of these parts effectively renews the experience, even if the replacements and/or additions are small in scale.

When it comes to adding such a feature to an existing game, an easy way to provide a similar type of replayability is to add a set of modifiers to existing content. For example, WoW does this with Mythic+ dungeons by using affixes that are present at specific difficulty level thresholds. These affixes add a specific mechanic or otherwise modify enemies in the dungeon based on the name of the affix and two are drawn from a pool of many while the third toggles between two specific affixes. Even though there's some arguably unfair combinations, the 11 affixes as of this writing that are used, in addition to the toggling third provide 220 permutations to choose from, so there's plenty of room for making Mythic+ dungeons at a high level feel different. The affix system also allows for further tweaks much like with the numerous variables that can be tweaked in Hearthstone's Dungeon Runs.

Another concept I think could be derived and used from Dungeon Runs is the idea of expressing generosity as an investment to improve player retention through fun. While Adventure Mode could technically do the same in Hearthstone, it's a bit more collection-reliant and there's only one set of encounters that are free to access. Meanwhile, Dungeon Runs require no collection, let alone much of an investment, to enter yet allow the player to effectively play with a whole collection. The sandbox experience is a bit of a bonus that may ultimately provide many, many hours of entertainment.

I think this concept best applies to games that have a strong emphasis on the collecting aspect since it's easy of falling into the trap of encouraging players to spend money to build their collections to take advantage of one's desires to complete or, more importantly, compete. Features such as Dungeon Runs would instead to attempt to "manipulate" players with an enjoyable experience that may result in them spending money out of a show of support instead of perceived necessity. With that said, I think Hearthstone is far from perfect in regards to accomplishing this goal.

Conclusion

I think Dungeon Runs are a big step forward in terms of making Hearthstone a game that can be enjoyed by more players. It's a free experience that can provide numerous hours of entertainment that has high replayability that helps to combat the fatigue of repetition. However, I still think other parts of the game need improvement such as the card collecting aspect, which is why I wish to see my suggestions or at least similar suggestions from another player, make their way into the game. I also think Dungeon Runs can be expounded upon further with additional bosses and other additions that increase the permutability, as well as the replayability, further.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Leveling Quick Fixes: Rare Spawns

This article is part of a series. Click here to go to the intro article where a table of contents is available.

Rare spawns have been an interesting feature to me since I played Diablo 2 which had random and fixed unique monsters with exceptional item drops that were entertaining to repeatedly farm. Warcraft 3 also featured special items obtained from secrets and encounters with unique enemies especially in the expansion's Orc campaign. WoW is no exception to the rule and while I personally find the older iterations of rare spawns to be less interesting, they became such a prominent feature in Mists of Pandaria to me that I suggested that specific iteration of rare spawns as a form of leveling content. I thought that because Mists of Pandaria rare spawns were challenging and rewarding, they had the potential to accomplish a lot of my goals for improving the leveling system and this still holds true today since it's the first suggestion for this article series.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Leveling Quick Fixes: Intro

Patch 7.3.5 in World of Warcraft recently came out and with it came some changes to leveling that were alluded to nearly two years ago, where Watcher mentioned how broken the leveling experience was and saw promise in the level scaling tech that Legion was introducing. This was shortly followed by some small changes to improve the leveling experience a little bit in the meantime. As promised, the level scaling tech and additional tweaks are here in full force and while I don't entirely agree with the direction Blizzard has taken, I will admit it resolves one major problem I had with leveling that I brought up a couple years ago.

Specifically, I think Blizzard addressed power creep fairly well by tuning enemies appropriately, which is most apparent in dungeons. Also, level scaling allows for more freedom to explore zones and complete their storylines, which is a direct response to my gripe with outleveling zones even without using heirlooms. Finally, this change comes at a great time since it effectively rejuvenates old content for players to consume while the next expansion is being developed.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The State of Regular Mythic Dungeons

In Patch 6.2, Mythic dungeons were added to the game, which helped to provide some much-needed content during a time when subscriber numbers were dropping heavily. At the time, it was basically endgame content that awarded gear to allow players to comfortably run the Hellfire Citadel raid, the last raid of the Warlords of Draenor expansion. This meant that how Mythic dungeons would be implemented in the Legion expansion would be very different since it would likely be entry-level content that was available for who have done Heroic dungeons. At the start of the expansion, this was indeed the case but was quickly overtaken by Mythic+, which is basically a Challenge Mode-style dungeon with scaling difficulty and rewards. Because of the endless content potential comparable to Greater Rifts in Diablo 3, I praised this feature in a past article that also seems to have gotten a fair bit of positive reception from players.

However, in that same article I pointed out that I noticed that regular Mythic dungeons seemed to be on the verge of being outdated content and while the gear reward item levels got boosted twice along with Heroic dungeons to provide consistent progression towards current endgame content, Mythic dungeons themselves largely seem dead outside of Dungeon event weeks. This might not initially seem like a big deal but there are some quests that can only be done in regular Mythic dungeons such as many Balance of Power quests. Personally, I had a frustrating time finding groups to run regular Mythic dungeons for Court of Stars and Arcway even during an event week to do my quest.

Unfortunately, supplying anecdotes, especially for a couple dungeons that required attunement to begin with, is not a good way to support my argument that regular Mythic dungeons are in a sorry state. That is why in this article I'm going to provide a few reasons why I think regular Mythic dungeons aren't run much or, at least in the future, will likely not be run much.

Mythic is harder than Heroic, but arguably less rewarding

It's understandable that Mythic, being a step up from Heroic in difficulty, should be more challenging. While it initially started out only a little more challenging, some changes have made that difference greater. The reward difference also initially made sense since both difficulties were mostly known for their gear reward.

However, other fast methods of gearing were made available such as Dauntless and Relinquished gear tokens that made the method of gearing through Heroic and Mythic dungeons obsolete even when the 7.2 and 7.3 buffs came around. This means that gear-based rewards from Heroic and Mythic dungeons were not as worthwhile, meaning both modes needed other worthwhile rewards. I was personally partial to having bosses in dungeons and raids award Nethershards, which would've been a useful secondary reward to earn like with Badges of Justice and similar currency in the past.

Instead, this salvation came in the form of Writhing Essence, which was awarded in small amounts for running a Random Heroic through Dungeon Finder daily. Meanwhile, running Mythic+ had allowed the player to loot a high amount of legendary upgrade currency from the weekly chest. This left regular Mythic, which to this day awards no legendary upgrade currency or other major secondary reward. To make things worse, the most recent legendary upgrade currency can be used to buy legendary gear as of patch 7.3.5, which provides even more of an incentive to farm the currency.

Mythic requires a premade group

A few years ago, I thought Mythic dungeons in Warlords of Draenor weren't sufficient in terms of encouraging players to run party content with a premade group, which in turn would've cut down on Dungeon Finder reliance, so I wrote an article about it. While my suggestions didn't quite take the form I expected, I can't object to the success of Mythic+ dungeons as content that requires a premade group. However, it seems things have come full circle since once again I feel like Mythic dungeons are insufficient at encouraging players to run party content with a premade group.

Fortunately, with Mythic+ around, the need for Mythic to fulfill the role of serving as an alternative to matchmade group content is not needed as much. This then raises the question of why Mythic dungeons, especially since they're only a bit harder yet not as rewarding as Heroic dungeons, cannot be done with matchmade groups. It really serves as more of a drawback that makes forming a group to do the rare few quests (or whatever objective the player desires) that require a regular Mythic dungeon a frustrating experience that doesn't really have a place in the current game. This is also a different situation compared to the past when Dungeon Finder or Premade Group Finder didn't exist since players had to use chat to form groups for content that was generally worthwhile to do rather than using a convenient tool only to find no interested players.

Mythic+ is so much better to do

I alluded to this a little in the previous section but I might as well outright say it: Mythic+ is just better to do the vast majority of the time compared to regular Mythic dungeons. This has a lot to do with the fact that lower Mythic+ levels aren't that much harder than regular Mythic dungeons but they're far more rewarding to do. At Mythic level 2, enemies are about 10% harder and even a few levels up they're not too bad to steamroll since there's a good chance players will outgear the content or have someone in the party who is. Furthermore, players who do a Mythic+ even at a lower level are guaranteed at least one piece of fairly powerful gear from the weekly chest along with some of the aforementioned Wakening Essence. They are also guaranteed keystones to run more Mythic+ for the current and following week.

To contrast, regular Mythic dungeons provide several chances to earn some lower end gear they may not be able to use like with lower level Mythic+ and a keystone to run Mythic+ for that week. Aside from the fact the regular Mythic dungeon basically steers the player to run Mythic+ with its reward, the other rewards are inferior and based on random chance. This also brings up the point that players can effectively run Mythic+ as long as they have a keystone, which will always be the case if they do a run each week. Players also have the option to join an existing Mythic+ run to get a keystone instead of running a regular Mythic dungeon even if they haven't run any Mythic+ recently (or at all).

Solving the Problems

While resolving the apparent obsolescence of regular Mythic dungeons isn't that urgent, I think it's important to address it since it'll be relevant content in the Battle for Azeroth expansion for a brief time before falling into obscurity once again if nothing changes. Also, I don't think the changes I'm suggesting are major to implement, but they may be controversial.

The first change is to make it possible to queue for regular Mythic dungeons through the Dungeon Finder. My reasoning for this is that Mythic+ fills the niche of requiring a premade group for content better. The keystone system itself is strongly compatible with premade grouping since players are encouraged to create a group to run a keystone. The challenge and rewards also scale, meaning players are able to find a level that comfortably suits them best. Since Mythic itself is a singular difficulty that's a slightly harder version of Heroic it should be provided with similar features. Much like with Heroic dungeons, players can still make a premade group to run Mythic dungeons. My biggest hope is no more existing content needs a Dungeon Finder queue.

The second change is to alter quest objectives that exclusively require regular Mythic dungeons to either be completable in Heroic or Mythic+. Some quests do this already, but as I mentioned, others do not. The reason I don't specify towards one or the other is because I think the direction of quest objective flexibility should be at Blizzard's discretion. By doing so, objectives that are intended to be more or less difficult can be appropriately classified. I think this change should take place even if the first one makes it through since it provides players with more choice of the content they want to do, especially when it comes to choosing between Mythic and Mythic+.

With these changes, hopefully Mythic dungeons will be run a bit more or at least not produce a frustrating experience due to narrow quest requirements.