Sunday, May 28, 2017

Artifacts and Paragon Systems Do Not Mix Well

A while ago, I published a couple articles on Artifacts. At the time, it wasn't apparent how far the Artifact system would go so at the time, I thought it was a nice bit of extensive character progression that allows a player to increase the power of character abilities well after leveling was finished. However, I expressed issues about how well Artifact Power would hold as a reward, both because it could end up being too impactful (because of the character power provided by traits in the more competitive WoW environment) and end up not being impactful enough (because it was possible to max out the Artifact by earning all the traits).

Prior to patch 7.2, both of the aforementioned scenarios happened since traits 35 and onward were direct generic increases to character power, making them a staple for endgame progression. However, once players acquired all 54 traits in an Artifact, a hotfix prevented them from adding any more due to traits planned for patch 7.2 and any accumulated tokens could not be used on such Artifacts either, making them into vendor trash or fodder for offspec weapons. While that problem doesn't seem likely to happen again, the existence of Concordance of the Legionfall makes me concerned about whether Blizzard's way of implementing a Paragon system through Artifacts will work out, a concern I brought up more recently when discussing how Diablo concept have been adapted into WoW. In this article, I will establish the purpose of a Paragon system from a gameplay standpoint based on personal opinion and Blizzard's statements, then explain why the Artifact system in particular lacks compatibility with accomplishing said purpose.

The Purpose of Paragon

I've mentioned this in some capacity a few times at this point, but the general goal of a Paragon system to me is one that makes (at least) endgame content eternally worthwhile by having a little extra reward in the way of a strong sense of personal progression. However, while the player can pursue this progression if they so desire, there's not necessarily a strong need to. Ultimately, such a system would serve to improve player retention in a manner similar to evergreen content since the reward system itself is evergreen and tied to all (or almost all) endgame content at the very least.

Designing a system that makes personal progression worthwhile without being mandatory can be very hard to balance depending on the game; what works in Diablo 3 might not work in World of Warcraft. In fact, because of how competitive players can be in World of Warcraft in terms of min-maxing their characters, I think direct increases to character do not make good rewards for a Paragon system in WoW. This is because there's a good chance players will find it compulsory to grind for that power much like they do with gear, but in this case the activity is more time-consuming.

Let's consider Blizzard's stance on Artifact Power, as taken from here, though there are similar official statements floating around:
"Artifact Power is a way of making players feel they are always getting tangible rewards that count towards a goal, even if they don't get loot. AP counts as steady progress towards a goal - even if you get unlucky with drops, you got some AP and didn't waste time."
After mentioning Artifact Power should have a cap of sorts to serve as a goal, the Q&A goes on to say:
"Blizzard doesn't want AP to be something to seek out as the primary reward. If you're doing an activity to farm AP with no other purpose (eg Mythic+ farming at low keystone levels), Blizzard feels the balance is wrong."
As one can see, their thoughts on the Artifact Power are somewhat similar to mine. A major difference is to Blizzard, Artifact Power is intended to have a tangible end, which is understandable since Blizzard insists on having nearly every trait provide an increase in character power. While their statements do make sense, Blizzard's idea of "balance" seems very difficult to achieve. In addition, the first iterations of an existing Paragon system in Diablo 3 had an upper limit that was then removed in Paragon 2.0, so it's very possible Blizzard may be trying something similar with Artifacts.

Furthermore, considering the length of the grind to max out a trait like Concordance of the Legionfall, it comes off as a weird half-measure of capturing the spirit of what a Paragon system is without fully harnessing the infinite element that could at least make endgame content a little more enticing to do. The fact Artifact Power is stated to be an ever-present reward in the first paragraph supports the idea of harnessing Paragon-like endgame progression.

Ultimately, while Blizzard doesn't seem to have explicitly called their Artifact system "Paragon," there seems to be a recognition of Paragon traits within the community. This is in addition to the points I made above that shows a clear intent to make the act of acquiring Artifact Power to empower a weapon towards a very long-term goal Paragon-like. It's at least fair to say Artifacts currently serve a role of attempting to greatly extend the lifespan of endgame content with the intention to provide a similar type of player retention as a Paragon system would.

The Incompatibilities

Now that it's been established Artifacts are at least Paragon-like in their current state, I will examine aspects of the system that may cause problems in a Paragon (or Paragon-like) system.

Multiple Specs

While I can understand each Artifact is specifically tuned to boost the power of each specialization's abilities, it can become problematic with traits that are very time-consuming to earn. Artifact Knowledge will eventually cover most of the traits, but the many ranks of a trait like Concordance of the Legionfall are costly to maximize. At Artifact Knowledge 50 based on current values, over 1.5 billion (865,842,644,766,330 AP/552,001 AK multiplier) base Artifact Power needs to be acquired to go from the first trait to the last, with the lion's share going towards the aforementioned trait. This is ignoring the fact that currently, the maximum possible Artifact Knowledge is 40 since the cap will likely increase later (probably in patch 7.2.5) and players aren't meant to farm many ranks of the trait. The point though is maxing out Concordance of the Legionfall or even having a fairly decent number of ranks in the trait is going to take a lot of dedicated farming.

For a player not too worried about optimizing, such as those pushing LFR, Normal, and maybe Heroic raid progression or some equivalent form of content, this isn't too big of a deal and chances are such players make up a large portion of the playerbase. However, for those who may find themselves optimizing multiple specs likely for the sake of progression, farming double or more of the Artifact Power needed to unlock many ranks of Concordance of the Legionfall on multiple weapons is pretty demanding. While I think players may have some responsibility for imposing this frustration upon themselves, I also think it's important to design a system that minimizes these frustrations. 

Ultimately, the point is that having a Paragon trait that is already time-consuming to grind in itself shouldn't then multiply by the number of specs a player wants to play optimally. It's a source of frustration that contradicts previous attempts to make playing other specializations more approachable, such as the hybridization of primary stats on gear and the ability to change to any specialization in Legion.

Multiple Characters

This issue is similar to multiple specs but can multiply out of control since each character may have their own specs to manage. However, to simplify, each character may need to earn many ranks of Concordance of the Legionfall once, meaning the Artifact Power demand is multiplied by the number of characters that the player intends to play in a dedicated manner. To be fair, there are some factors to consider. For example, Artifact Power rewards are a little frontloaded in the form of time-gated content like emissary quest rewards, weekly Mythic+ rewards, and Order Hall missions. With such factors considered, the Artifact Power demand per character isn't entirely multiplied but managing multiple characters can rapidly become very time-consuming even compared to typical alt management prior to Warlords of Draenor.

In the past I gave some advice to altoholics regarding the sort of time they should be investing into their many characters since it was so jarring to basically go from a couple minutes of mission management to something more dedicated like World Quests. However, I also mentioned that Blizzard's design philosophy isn't immune to criticism. Though I do favor towards more content over less, with Artifact Power as a reward system making a lot of content relevant to do, the existence of traits like Concordance of the Legionfall is my breaking point, even though personally, I couldn't care less how many ranks I end up getting on my characters. Incidentally, Blizzard implemented Paragon 2.0 which made the system account-wide instead of tying progression to character like their previous system. As mentioned in the article on Paragon 2.0 above:
"We made this change so players wouldn't feel obligated to continue playing the same hero over and over again in order to maximize their farming efficiency. We want players to have fun with the game, to experiment with different classes, and to feel rewarded for their time investment, regardless of what hero they’re playing."
By replacing a few terms (like "hero" with "character" and "farming efficiency" with "effectiveness"), it's easy enough to see there's some equivalence with why an account-wide Paragon system makes more sense to implement if Blizzard is interested in player retention, even if it would require a rework of existing Artifact traits.

Artifact Knowledge and Numerical Inflation

This one's not as big of a deal as the previous two issues, but this Blizzard Watch article brings up a good point about how seeing large Artifact Power requirements to unlock future traits can be demoralizing. Math can help to show the requirements aren't as bad as they look, but there's arguably some rationalization going on there, especially when considering how much base Artifact Power is needed to earn later traits relative to earlier traits at lower Artifact Knowledge.

Speaking of Artifact Knowledge, while I can understand it's used to gate how quickly new traits are acquired by applying diminishing returns to Artifact Power gains, preventing players from just grinding the traits out immediately, some of the Artifact Knowledge levels seem balanced around getting ranks of Paragon traits. This is especially going to be apparent if Artifact Knowledge goes above 40 (which it probably will) since by the time it does, many players will have at least one rank of Concordance of the Legionfall.

Blizzard could get around the problem of having many Artifact Knowledge levels by reducing the amount of Artifact Power needed for each rank, but since there were already 20 ranks of Paragon traits and Artifact Knowledge up to level 25 was balanced around making it possible to earn the millions of Artifact Power to buy those ranks, the damage has already been done. This is especially the case since Artifact Power used on the older Paragon traits was refunded and the amount needed for the new 7.2 traits had to be balanced around the fact to prevent some players from getting a huge head start.

Ultimately, the fiasco of numerical inflation associated with Artifact Power seems indicative of design flaws and lack of foresight since the issues described above could've been heavily mitigated by not adding Paragon traits to Artifacts at all and planning a cap for Artifact Power gains sooner rather than through a hotfix months later.

A New Approach - A Simple Solution

At this point, one may be wondering why it would be a problem to have an even longer grind on the basis of having more specializations and characters to progress. This is because I consider other processes, such as gearing and earning all Artifact traits prior to the Paragon trait to be a sufficient investment into a character and/or spec and there's plenty of ways to build upon those methods of developing a character. Furthermore the grind's benefits are rather limited in scope since they're self-contained and apply to only the spec or character.

The Blizzard Watch article concluded by asking a question of how to improve the Artifact system, which the author proceeded to answer himself by proposing a secondary way to unlock Paragon traits. I'm personally in agreement with this but I think there could stand to be some detail with the logistics of the solution.

As I've mentioned a few times, Artifacts in themselves provide a decent sense of character progression that serve as something of a talent system that players invest into during leveling into the endgame. This is why I don't object to non-Paragon traits since Artifact Knowledge and appropriately priced traits should allow players to unlock spec-specific benefits, some of which have relatively creative and defining mechanical enhancements, at a reasonable pace. I don't even mind that a few of these traits get added every major patch or so, since it's something players can look forward to unlocking to further enhance their character much like gear. Such a system even fulfills Blizzard's statements regarding the purpose of Artifact Power as mentioned above to a degree, since the consistency of the Artifact Power reward compensates for even the most mundane instances of bad luck.

But that's where the role of Artifacts should end. As Blizzard also mentioned, it's fine that Artifacts have an end and for me, I think that should currently be at rank 1 of Concordance of the Legionfall. Much like Diablo 3 reformed its Paragon system, WoW needs its Paragon 2.0 that'll provide account-wide benefits, which means there will be more of a sense of personal progression regardless of which character is being played than features like the Pet Journal and Wardrobe can hope to match. This is because the scope of the rewards, while potentially less impactful, is much greater and cares not about what spec your character, which may be one of many, is.

However, such a system is a major feature that would be time-consuming to develop and implement, so as an intermediary solution, provide a way to transfer Artifact Power to other characters in addition to reducing the number of ranks on Concordance of the Legionfall to one. For instance, since Artifact Power is sort of spent like a currency, it could be spent on an infinite trait that actually generates a token for the character. The token could then be transferred to other characters to buy Artifact Power. This does not need to immediately be available since players could be allowed to invest Artifact Power into their weapons until the feature is implemented. On the off chance the feature cannot be implemented, I can settle for capping Artifact Power investments into weapons and letting the items become vendor trash.

Ultimately, the point is that it might be time to abandon Artifact Power as a form of extended endgame progression.

One More Thing...

This leaves a question of what kind of traits a WoW Paragon 2.0 system could have. While I've already provided some examples, I've thought of more since then and I think it's worthy of an article. I may also provide more explanation on the type of traits that such a system should have since WoW is a different beast than Diablo 3, even though I've already made it pretty clear it shouldn't impact competitive performance (which I call "power traits"), which a generic increase in character power definitely does.

The follow-up article in question has been published and is available to read here.

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