Aion Beta Review From a WoW Player’s Perspective

Aion Beta Review From a WoW Player’s Perspective

Mage

I feel like I should put a disclaimer on this article for WoW fanboys and fangirls, because I am about to shower some praise (and criticism, of course) on a different MMO. I pre-ordered the regular edition of NCsoft’s Aion a couple of months ago, and I’ve been participating in some of the closed betas. Today I’m going to share with you my impressions of the game and speculate about its future playability. I’ll say upfront that I’m not planning, at least for myself anyway, to replace WoW with Aion. I’ve promised Matticus that I’ll stick around in WoW at least long enough to kill Arthas, and I hold to that. However, if Aion is as good as I think it might be, it might become the focus of some of my “casual time.”

The Art of Aion

The number one draw of most games for me is their art. WoW has largely been an exception to this rule. I would call the WoW graphics pleasant, even charming, and I certainly appreciate the ease of running WoW on my machine, but I’d never say that the WoW visuals are breathtaking. I gravitate toward strange, beautiful, and strangely beautiful images, and I was quite pleased to find that Aion has something of the look of a Miyazaki movie. In particular, the pastel desert style landscapes in early Elyos zones recall the visuals of his film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind–a longtime favorite of mine. Below, you can see a screenshot of my character hovering over Verteron, which is an early quest hub. I like the mountains and glacial valley in this particular scene, especially as it’s punctuated with prehistoric-looking animals–it gives the world an ancient feel that I appreciate. Some zones are much more pastoral, but in general, the color palette is more muted that WoW’s–it uses more pastels and seems to prefer yellow and brown over blue and red. This look gives an overall impression of age and decadence, which fits the story quite well. After all, according to the game’s lore, we’re supposed to understand that the once-flourishing world was literally split in two by cosmic warfare. The game’s visuals, on the whole, support that claim. I have played mostly Elyos side, but poking around about in the Asmodean starting area I can say that the cooler palette of Asmodae continues the eerie feel of the game as a whole.

hovering

Character Customization

Aion’s spectacularly sensitive character generation tools have probably gotten more press than any other aspect of the game. Unlike WoW, which essentially gives a player a few pre-determined models to choose from, Aion lets the user play with proportions of face and body and minute differences in color to render truly unique player characters. I will say that I still like WoW’s character creator. I’ve logged lots of hours creating my alts and then testing their hairstyles and movements. I also spend much more gold in the barbershops than anyone ought to. However, my need to create compelling characters was not really satisfied until I found Aion. I spent at least 6 hours on character creator, making one unique face at the start of each of my beta gaming sessions. I wish I’d taken screenshots of all the characters I created and destroyed, but I was able to make a mixture of face and body types that referenced different ethnicities. I’ll show you my three favorites: my sorcereress, my cleric, and my ranger.

char creator
This is my sorceress, whose name I won’t reveal because I intend to use it when Aion goes live. I created her to look like the main character of the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I’ll admit. So what I have here is a character who’s supposed to look innocent despite a rather odd appearance–prematurely white hair and goth makeup. I couldn’t resist adding the elf ears as a nod to my favorite characters in WoW. The result is more eerie than a generic Galadriel elf type, and I’m very pleased to run around on this character. The character animations and movements have a sort of dainty quality to them that I’ve enjoyed immensely. The picture below is the resting (restoring mana) animation for my character, and I have to say, she looks a bit like Alice in Wonderland in that pose.
resting

The next character is my cleric, which is the game’s main healing class. I couldn’t resist giving her Syd’s parsley-colored hair. She may be the most beautiful of the three characters I made, but I will have to say, of the three her face is closest to the preset values and thus there are probably many others like her out there.
Cleric

My third character, a ranger, probably took the most time to create, because I used a photograph of a Civil War general to help me approximate the look I wanted. It’s possible to spend hours and hours tweaking an Aion character to look like a photograph. Not all faces can be imitated, and the basic faces do have a certain similarity to each other. I’m not sure how good a job I did with the limited options, but my ranger does have sort of an archaic look that I just love.
Ranger

Basic Gameplay

So far, so good, right? Well, if one never looked beyond the quality of the art and character customization in Aion, it would be easy to say that it’s a great game. However, the finesse of the art is not matched by smooth gameplay. I found the basic controls in Aion to be similar to WoW and pretty workable, but I also made extensive use of macros and remapped most of my basic abilities for easier reach. I’m used to dpsing with a certain set of keys in WoW, and I made similar bindings for my sorcerer. However, Aion is certainly playable out of the box. The only exception to this is that the flight controls are automatically mapped to Page Up and Page Down, which are two keys I simply can’t reach if I’m using my mouse. Other than that, the only thing that’s truly egregious about the controls is that the left mouse button is used for click-to-move. Thank goodness that’s easy to unbind. I miss holding down left click to look around as I do in WoW, but that’s a minor thing. My Razer Death Adder mouse with its two thumb buttons simply doesn’t work with Aion, and that’s a pretty big disappointment. I had planned to put my health and mana recovery functions over there. From what I’ve read on the forums, the Logitech gaming mice do work. Sigh.

There are a few other little annoyances related to moving around and doing things in the world. I’m used to WoW, which has cleaned up its interface considerably, so I get frustrated with Aion’s more primitive system. In general, I would say that the controls in Aion are slower. The global cooldown occurs after, not during, a spell’s cast time, so to a WoW player a rotation will feel slow. Gathering also takes a considerable amount of time and uses a clunky animation, as does resting. Picking up quest items can be frustrating because of the game’s phasing system. While questing, you can change channels in order to better share the space with many players. However, I think this causes problems with looting quest items on the ground, as very often your character can’t interact with an object that you can see. In addition, every time you loot a quest item, you have to click a dialog box that says its ok to loot an untradeable item. This gets very annoying while solo questing.

The other thing that bothered me during questing had to do with my character’s voice animations. My sorceress talks too much, and she utters nonsense phrases that unfortunately sound a bit like words in English. I didn’t play the last closed beta, so I have no idea what the North American/European vocals for casting, resting, and hp/mana recovery sound like, but from what I’ve read, they use the same nonsense syllables as in the Korean version, just pronounced in a less “Asian” style. I hate to say it, but I made fun of my character all throughout the betas for her gibberish. For example, when I casted a nuke, my character said something that sounded like “Kick in the PANTS!”, and when I used a bandage, she declared that she was “shittin-n-pissin.” It’s too bad that I need my game sounds to play well. Here’s hoping that the character voices were localized for the NA audience in a thoughtful manner. We’ll see when the final version of the game is released. I don’t think I can play a character that constantly needs to relieve herself (and tell me about it).

I’ll also mention a couple of minor gameplay issues that certainly aren’t game-breaking but might be off-putting to WoW players in particular. When it’s time to learn new skills in Aion, bring a notebook. They are learned on a system similar to Warlock pets’ old grimoires, using spellbooks. It’s easy to miss one or buy the same one twice. I haven’t leveled a character enough to get into the stigma system, which is analogous to specs in WoW. It seems pretty strange and exotic to me.

The other thing that might discomfit WoW healers in particular is a combination of a poor healing interface (think Vanilla WoW) and a lack of support for mods. You simply can’t modify the interface, except with macros. I think mouseover macros would work for healing, but I didn’t try them. The interface made me glad I’d decided to play ranged dps, which even in WoW is not heavily dependent on UI mods.

I’d have to say, though, that the biggest annoyance for any WoW player will probably be the chat commands. They simply aren’t the same / commands that we’re used to, and I end up doing a lot of right clicking and menu searching when I want to say something to a party member. I’m sure I’ll learn the system, but from what I’ve seen talking to others is simply not as easy as it is in WoW.

Flight

Besides the character creation engine, Aion’s biggest selling point is its flight mechanics. At level 10, your character ascends as a Daeva and receives a pair of spirit wings. The drawback is that these wings sometimes work and sometimes don’t–and mostly, they don’t. Many players will use The Lore to explain why flight is sometimes not allowed. There’s some mumbo jumbo about how I have to have pieces of aether nearby to pop my magical wings. I am highly cognizant of the arbitrary nature of The Lore, and I will tell you now that the reason that flight is so severely limited while leveling in Aion is lack of imagination. It’s simply easier to design a ground-based game than one that uses vertical space. I get it, but I end up feeling very ripped off by the limits on flight. First, you can fly for only one minute at a time, and the takeoff animation is going to take up 6-8 seconds of that. Second, gliding, which is basically flying downward with limited use of your controls, only extends this time slightly. Third, once you land, it takes another full minute to restore your flight time. One minute of flight on, one minute off.

I can tell already that flight in Aion is going to be primarily a combat technique. It’s far too limited to be used for travel purposes, even with the flight time extensions that are available in potions and upgraded wings. I wish that the developers had decided to keep combat on the ground (especially PvP combat) and let flight be used as a convenience. As it stands now, flight in Aion doesn’t feel like freedom. It’s actually more efficient to run on the ground if you’re trying to get somewhere. If you want to feel truly free in flight, there’s nothing like the druid flight form, which I’ve been enjoying in WoW for quite some time. I love to shift and reshift, falling in my elf form and catching myself in bird form. That’s just not as easy to do in Aion. I’m hoping for future changes to this aspect of gameplay as it’s one of the most common complaints from North American beta players. However, as the game is already up and running (and wildly successful) in Korea and China, I don’t expect changes before the NA release in September.

One thing I will say about flight in Aion–it’s pretty stylish. Here’s a screenshot that captures the elegance of it. My character uses her extended legs as a sort of tail when she floats, and it reminds me of Nausicaa on her glider.

nausicaa_imitation

Factions

Aion has two factions, the Elyos and the Asmodeans. Some call them angels and demons, but both groups are perfectly good and perfectly beautiful. I focused on Elyos for my own beta gameplay, but it was a difficult choice and I may revise it later. If I wanted to, say, make a character that looked just like Syd, I’d go Asmo. In the end, the choice will be mostly aesthetic. Do you prefer a white/blue wing palette or a black/purple one? Would you rather look more or less human? Elyos is kind of a vanilla choice, I admit, but I chose them primarily for their resplendent white wings. However, as I’m planning on being a casual player, I’m pretty sure I’ll check out both sides. My guess is that Elyos will be more numerous when the live servers open up, but I could always be wrong.

Classes

There are eight classes in Aion, but there are only 4 starting classes: Warrior, Mage, Priest, and Scout. Each of those classes subdivides into two specific classes at level 10. Essentially, a player’s choice of role is deferred for 10 levels.

In the beta, I’ve played Sorcerer, Cleric, and Ranger. I liked all three, though I’m going with Sorcerer for my main. None of the leveling content is going to present much difficulty for WoW veterans. There are slightly different mechanics. For example, all classes depend on chain attacks for much of their damage. A chain sequences my spells for me. When I hit one of my nukes, I have an option to follow it up with a second special attack. I find the chain attacks really useful. The special abilities are on a cooldown, and what happens over time is that the chains themselves push the player into a rotation that looks something like 1-1-2-2-1-1-1-2-2 without theorycrafting it out. It’s a very tidy way to do things.

As far as class choice goes, I’m going to try to match up Aion classes with their WoW equivalents. Be aware, though, that I’m mostly going by forum posts as I haven’t personally played everything.

Warriors

These guys are your typical buckethead plate wearers (I kid) and the tanks of Aion. The two subtypes are Templar and Gladiator. As far as I can tell, the Templar is the most like a traditional tank, like the warrior of Vanilla WoW. The Gladiator seems to be a bit more like a Fury warrior in tanking gear. However, I haven’t played either of these. The only thing I’ve learned from grouping with them is that the taunt function (called provoke I think) actually raises threat with a mob when it’s either crowd controlled or already focused on the tank. That’s pretty different from WoW.

I have a feeling tank characters will have no trouble getting PvE groups, but I will warn that PvE is not the focus of Aion. Tanks may be fairly strong in PvP, but they’re not widely considered OP in that capacity at the moment.

Mages

The mages divide into Sorcerer and Spiritmaster at lvl 10, which seems to correspond pretty well to WoW’s mage and warlock. I love my sorceress. She is a true glass cannon and comes equipped with multiple means of crowd control and several heavy nukes. I will warn that magical damage can’t crit, so sorcerers should expect to do heavy sustained damage without any spectacular bursts. Sorcerers are strong in all aspects of the game, but they are also delicate. In PvP, they are heavily dependent on getting the jump on opponents, and in PvE groups, they will pull aggro early and often with their CC spells. Only play this class if you’re good at making money and patient when you die.

Spiritmasters are much more durable than Sorcerers and thanks to the cute pets, probably better at soloing. I also hear they’re strong in PvP. I’m not interested in this class myself because I detest controlling my warlock pet in WoW, and from what I read, the Spiritmaster pets take even more micromanagement.

Scouts

Scouts divide into Assassin and Ranger, roughly correspondent to WoW Rogues and Hunters. Assassins (surprise, surprise) are strong in PvE solo content and downright dominant against some classes in PvP. From what I read, good assassins are pretty much a hard counter to the sorcerer. Like any other class, they are dependent on surprise for an easy kill. Rangers are far more delicate than the WoW hunter, but they have the potential to be great in PvP. They are less desired in PvE groups than the Sorcerer, and they also tend to be a bit of a glass cannon in that environment–but this game isn’t really about PvE. The Ranger can stealth, and the ranger can crit–so he or she is a force to be reckoned with in PvP. I’ve played a ranger a bit, and I will say that the one thing that will keep me from making one my main is the movement buffs and debuffs. The ranger doesn’t kite in quite the same way as a WoW hunter. Moving forward will give me a damage bonus, while backing up or strafing will give me a speed/damage debuff. A ranger also can’t really toggle autoattack to weave between shots–I keep having to spam it, resulting in a sore left wrist. I would say that sorcerer and ranger are very similar, but sorcerer is a bit easier (for me anyway) to learn.

Priests

I bet you thought I’d play a priest, didn’t you? So did I. I have to say that I like both the Cleric and the Chanter, the two flavors of priest, pretty well, but I need a change. Cleric reminds me of a holy paladin, which chanter could best be compared to enhancement shaman. The Cleric has a smite spell, which I find pretty funny, and they do low damage while being very survivable. My fiance played a cleric in beta, and paired with a sorcerer, a cleric is definitely a force to be reckoned with. However, he got a little frustrated at the slow pace of soloing. The chanter is quite different from other classes in that it’s primarily styled as a buffer. Now, that’s supposed to make a chanter very desired in groups, but there’s not that many of them around and I’ve never played with one. I’d say the chanter is the closest thing Aion has right now to an underpowered class. If healing floats your boat, go with the cleric. From what I’ve read it seems like playing a chanter would be somewhat like leveling a druid in Vanilla WoW–cast Rejuv, and then melee stuff in cat form. I hope it would be more fun than that, but I’m pretty sure it’s not for me.

Professions and Gear Augmentation

Unlike WoW, Aion lets players level up all the crafting professions, which run the usual gamut of armor and consumable making, almost to full. You can only Master (i.e. max out) one profession. Leveling a crafting profession is quite costly, and the economy is harder to “read” than WoW’s because the currency, Kinah, is exchanged in such high numbers. A calculator is necessary for would-be crafters and Auction House speculators. I think the AH is called the Broker in Aion, but I have trouble remembering. In any case, Aion crafting will be slow to level, because all crafts have chance to fail–and if they do, you lose your materials. I’m a very patient person when it comes to grinds, so I’m looking forward to tougher profession leveling–but I am going to bar my hot-tempered fiance from going near the crafting district. Oh, and you can fail at socketing gems as well, destroying millions of Kinah-worth of mana stones. . . and from all reports, chances of failure actually increase with higher-level items. This is a very hardcore crafting and item enhancement system, folks, so be patient with it.

PvPvE

As I’ve said at least twice, this is not a PvE game. The whole purpose of leveling is to get to the Abyss, where you can earn Abyss Points for participating in kills on enemy players. The best armor in the game is earned exclusively through Abyss points–so you tell me where the focus is. From what I’ve read, the Abyss is less like a formal battleground and more like the old epic battles at Southshore. Opposing armies zerg each other, and strength in numbers is the way to win. Aion’s neutral faction, the NPC demon Balaur, always come to the assistance of the outnumbered side. I’m reserving judgment on this one until I see how it works. It could either be great fun, or it could be buggy and easy to exploit. In any case, if I play Aion for any length of time, even I will have to PvP.

Game Economy

It seems to me that most things in game–from great craftable gear to mana potions–can be bought pretty easily either from the Broker or from player stores (the equivalent of trade chat). The values for Kinah seem really inflated to someone used to either United States currency or WoW currency. It wouldn’t be strange to see an item sell for, say, 10 million Kinah. I think the choice of “Kinah” is unfortunate because of the ambiguity with the abbreviation K for thousand. We’ll see how the game and game terminology shakes out. Players may end up abbreviating Kinah KI or KN to disambiguate.

There are certainly gold sinks in the current game. Crafting is probably #1. I am planning on mastering alchemy, as sorcerers are really dependent on mana potions, and I’m usually good at selling things. However, it’s unclear whether selling will ever be profitable in Aion as, over time, players can become self-sufficient by leveling all the consumable professions almost to the max. We’ll see. My darker prediction is that with high prices and few ways to earn, gold buying will become really common.

The other gold sink is death–analogous to repairs in WoW. Each time a player dies in PvE, experience is lost unless you’re willing to pay…and I always am. As a sorcereress, I die a lot. I’m just going to have to find a way to make the Broker system work for me because I’m simply not going to either buy gold or stop dying so much.

Conclusions

Aion is not a perfect game. Neither is WoW. I’d say on the whole that WoW suits me more as a player–large scale PvE raiding is just something that Aion doesn’t offer. I’d also say that I vastly prefer WoW’s interface and mod-using capability. But for PvP or leveling content I might go with Aion. It feels like time for a change, at least for a couple hours a week.

Finally, a Worthy Idol!

It’s no secret that I’ve been less than pleased with patch 3.2. However, last night I finally found something worth cheering over. I realized mid-raid that I had enough Emblems of Triumph to purchase my very own Idol of Flaring Growth. I bought it just before we engaged Faction Champions, and my my. How did I live without this thing?

You see, I’ve always wanted to be able to equip wands like priests do. The druid idols have always been somewhat useful, but much less valuable overall than wands. In general, resto druid spellpower numbers lag a little bit behind priests, and that’s partly due to the wand slot. Gearwise, resto druids and holy priests have become identical in terms of stat allocation on our primary items, and in my mind that’s a good thing. It makes me much less likely to lust over a cloth item, except when no leather equivalent exists.

And now, we get a shiny new idol that gives actual spellpower. The one thing my druid lacks, this idol delivers. How do I feel about more spellpower? Pleased would be an understatement.

This thing pretty much blows my favorite past idols, Emerald Queen and Lush Moss, which gave spellpower bonuses to Lifebloom only, out of the water. I have to say, I enjoy this thing much more even than my days of idol swapping between Regrowth and Lifebloom idols (back when that didn’t incur an extra global cooldown). I’m keeping around my Rejuvenation-oriented idol just in case we ever do Vexaz hardmode, but I plan to make Flaring Growth a permanent part of my healing set.

Let me explain how the idol works. The bonus spellpower effect procs from used or unused tics of Rejuvenation, and it appears to have both a very high proc rate and no internal cooldown. I would compare its uptime to Illustration of the Dragon Soul–which means the item is awesome. Consider it a near-permanent boost. Even if I’m tank healing, I am keeping up one or more Rejuvenations, so I find that the effect is active most of the time. Even in the Faction Champions fight, where I was relying mostly on Nourish, I was able to put out enough Rejuvenations to keep the effect up.

And what, my friends, is the best thing about this idol? Anyone can get it–no raiding required. Just do your heroic daily, collect your modest 25 emblems of Triumph, and get thee to the vendor.

Patch 3.2 in Review

Patch 3.2 in Review

bucket heads

Warning: Fanboys and Fangirls beware, as this is not a post you will like. I am about to criticize Blizzard, and if that offends your sensibilities, go ahead and mark as read. I don’t mind.

For the rest of you who are still reading, I want to take a hard look at a few aspects of patch 3.2. I am going to try not to wax poetic about how wonderful the BC patches were–in a sense, that was a different game for a different time, and I was also a different player. What I am going to do is talk about Blizzard’s successes and failures under the current design ethos, which I will sum up as Time Sinks for All Players.

Under the somewhat tongue-in-cheek category of the time sink, I comprehend raiding, dailies, instances, and overall reward structure. Let’s look at each of these aspects of patch 3.2 and examine whether Blizzard succeeded in their global goal of keeping their millions of players interested in their game. Notice that I’m not going to talk about class balance, which is a necessary part of any patch and which will be ongoing. I’m talking only about the New Cool Stuff that came in last Tuesday.

The Crusader’s Coliseum

Let me use my Mystic Orb of the Walrus (actually, a bouncy rubber ball full of green sparklies) to channel for you the Crusader’s Coliseum development meeting.

“You know, we really should make a raid instance for this patch.”

“Yeah, something like Zul’Aman. That was really great.”

“Nah, that took us forever to design. We need something easier, like a 5-man.”

“We put a lot of work into those 5-mans! I just don’t think that we can spare that much time.”

“I’ve got it! Why don’t we design an instance with just one room? We can make one room in like, a week.”

“Yeah, YEAH! And oh, let’s make them run it four times per week instead of just two.”

“Excellent. Also, we should make it take four weeks to get each tier piece, even if the bosses are pretty easy. Let’s require an emblem turn-in for each tier piece–that way it will be like old ZG rep gear, and some of them will never get it!”

“Aren’t they going to riot?”

“Well, as long as we let them get some emblems from the heroic daily, we’re good.”

When I walked into the Crusader’s Coliseum, I had a moment of panic as I realized that I was going to be spending 4-5 months of raiding within its hexagonal walls. When I panned my camera upward, I noticed that, far off center in the Alliance cheering section, there were 6 identical Syds cheering me on. I was so creeped out that I got a haircut right after the raid. In an instance where design has been reduced to brown walls and even the spectators are not individuated, how can I have any hope for interesting boss mechanics?

The Crusader’s Coliseum is, quite simply, lazy design.

The Daily Drudgery

Daily quests ought to be fun and easy. If I’m a farming type player, which many are, I’m much more likely to repeat something I find pleasant. I like the Dalaran cooking dailies, for example. They don’t require too much running, and the rewards are sufficient for the time spent. The gold standard of dailies will always be the SSO dailies of Quel’Danas. They used to be so quick, fun, and convenient that I did them on three characters. I will admit that my interest in the game is much lower now than it was back when my guild was working on Illidan. However, I’m pretty sure I’d grind at least one character through similarly well-designed dailies. The Coliseum-area dailies do not measure up. They are quite widespread and hard to do on one’s own. I particularly find the revised version of Battle For the Citadel a pain in the arse to solo. In order to kill 3 commanders, I have to clear any number of lieutenants and get my ass kicked multiple times by respawns. Don’t even get me started on Threat from Above! Dailies should be a solo operation, as they’ve historically been one of the few things one can do in WoW at 4am. As for the new dailies, I’ve only done a couple of them, and they take you a bit far from the questgivers for my taste. Out of ten or so possible dailies, the only one I really love is Among the Champions, where I get to school some NPCs in the joust. I particularly enjoy beating the stuffing out of the uppity Undead guy–if, indeed undeads have any stuffing left after the whole decomposition thing.

The trend in Wrath seems to be to design dailies which take more time and return proportionally less gold. In turn, the non-currency rewards (pets and mounts) are much better than they were in BC. The dailies are almost a pure time sink–and regrettably, I just don’t have that time. For earning money, the AH is the only way to go. I don’t think 6 or so dailies per day, four days a week, would actually pay for raiding, while two hours a week of selling flasks certainly does.

5-man Instances

I hate to say that I haven’t tried the new instance yet. I’m glad there is one, and I’m sure I’ll get there if it ever comes up as the heroic daily. Because of the reward structure, I try to do the heroic daily whenever I’m on (which is….not that often). I don’t want to be the absolute last person in my raid to buy a tier piece (though truth to tell, I’m in competition for that bottom spot). The thing is, Blizzard de-incentivized their 5-mans during Wrath. Naxx 10 was very easy and accessible compared to the heroics. However, its design was ugly as mud. Meanwhile, the art design for 5-mans was excellent. Most of us saw this beautiful dungeon art only a few times due to the lackluster rewards compared to Naxx. From all reports, the new 5-man is pretty easy, so it’s no Magister’s Terrace. I found Magister’s Terrace to be both challenging and beautiful, and I ran it with all three of my characters (one in tier 6, and two in…crafted purples and Kara gear). I think that Blizzard has–to their own detriment–gone away from the older design of heroics, which allowed some to be much harder than others. I find the hardest Wrath heroic to be Oculus–and I managed to complete that one the day I turned 80.

Rewards and Other Phat Loot

Developers be praised, we’ve got another armor tier to acquire! I love gear. I’m glad that the stats for the three iterations of Tier 9 are actually an upgrade on Ulduar gear. My greatest disappointment with Ulduar (which I love on all other points, including art and gameplay) is that the stats on the gear were such small upgrades from Naxx stuff that I actually didn’t get to see my character improve in noticeable ways even after equipping my new pieces. The only real performance upgrade that I was able to feel was the 4 pc bonus–which for resto druids is widely considered OP. This new patch is just the opposite–I can tell that at least the middle and upper varieties of T9 are going to make a difference in my power and sustainability. I’m jazzed about that. It’s too bad the armor designs themselves are, well, lazy. Many people have commented on this, but suffice it to say, in a few months of work and struggle, Syd is going to go from a gorgeous, glowing creature whose attire includes motifs of branches, leaves, moonlight, and starlight to, well, a Buckethead. Morever, we’re all going to be Bucketheads. I refer you back to the article header should you have any question as to what one’s head looks like when a bucket is equipped in that slot.

Well, let’s say that I can ignore the ugliness of the “new” armor art. There are still many non-gear rewards to be gained in 3.2. The one thing I actually care about, the Ulduar drake that I’ve been working for, is still available (thanks!). It will take a lot of hard raiding to get there–my guild, for one, is not anywhere near done with Ulduar hard modes. There are also new horsies from the Coliseum, mounts upon mounts from Champion’s Seals, more cute pets (even a wyrmling of a different color–who cares, but thanks), and even more tabards (that look pretty much like the old tabards). The game seems to be focused on acquiring volumes of things right now. It’s not “let me get this one beautiful unique mount” but “let me grind for 10 mounts so I can add to my achievements.” I have to say, I’m not too excited about all of it, because too many things seem to be reskins of the same old stuff. My preferred mount grinds are Winterspring Frostsaber (the only kitty with no armor), which I’ve done on one character and started on another, and the Stratholme speed run for Rivendare’s horsie, which I’ve put a few tries into on Syd and ultimately intend to acquire.

How could WoW have hooked me into grinding for new rewards? Well, they could have made them…really new. Let me grind for a raptor mount, and let the horde grind for a Winterspring Frostsaber. That would be pretty sweet. Let me buy the horde mounts for Champion’s Seals. Better yet, make me an entirely new mount–how about a rideable Jormungar? I guarantee you, my play time would have gone up! The new orphan quest is an example of a “good” reward. The gorloc and wolvar pets are pretty unique, and I stayed up an hour later than usual to get my cute little baby oracle.

No More Lazy Design!

The take-home message here is that developers need to spend time and resources on their game. Period. No game is so good that a patch can bring out more of the same and expect to reinvigorate the masses. I think the art budget in particular for WoW needs to go up exponentially.

What is the one thing that I love in patch 3.2? New druid forms! They’re really quite nice (and no, I was not one of the people who complained that they weren’t done right). In my mind, Pink Kitty is pretty much the best thing ever, and I even changed my much-beloved seafoam hair in order to gain access to it. The druid forms are a good example of what happens when you give the community something they’ve asked for and actually spend a little time on it. You get Syd, happily running around in cat form, which has pretty much never happened before. I can has cheezburger naow?

Here’s hoping that the devs announce something astounding at Blizzcon. Something must be done to make up for the overwhelming mediocrity of 3.2…unless, they really do want us to run out and buy Aion come September.

Archetypes of the Female Gamer, revisited

Archetypes of the Female Gamer, revisited

femme_fatale_collage

Shock. Frustration. Anger. Despair.

Before last week, these are words I never would have connected to my experience with World of Matticus, either as a writer or a reader. However, last week Lodur’s article on guild Egoists just left me cold. I’ve invoked these four words to let you the readers know what powerful effect such things can have, in the short term at least. Over the weekend I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and I think I’m finally ready to explain why a recitation of stereotypes about women disturbed me so much. First of all, I would like to say that I mean Lodur no disrespect. I am quite sure that his intentions were good, and in his own mind, his article is not even about women.

This piece is my attempt to explain why these stereotypes can never be gender neutral, and also why they are so harmful. I will say that even in the places where Lodur claims that the stereotypes could apply to men or women, it is “feminine” behavior that he abhors. Mischief is caused either by women acting like women or men who, aberrantly, act like women. These negative stereotypes are, at their core, the narratives by which male gamers understand their experience of female gamers. They act as framing devices, informing all interactions with “real” women gamers. For this reason, the female gamer has to earn the grudging respect of her fellow players, while a male gamer may start out with a measure of respect and either keep it or lose it by his behavior.

We’ve Heard It All Before

When I read Lodur’s article, it struck me as eerily familiar. I’ve seen much the same recitation of feminine sins on the WoW forums, usually as a justification for excluding women from raiding guilds. Archetypes, or stereotypes, help people quickly make sense of the world according to pre-determined building blocks. Moreover, they are are seductive because they are impossible to disprove–everyone can think of some story that corresponds in some vague way to the type, and as far as most people are concerned, one example is sufficient to prove the rule. Moreover, they carry the weight of repetition. The Princess, the Diva, the Vixen, and the She-Wolf (or, if you like, the Femme Fatale) exist outside the world of MMOs. I am just as likely to see women called “Princesses” on Perez Hilton or the WE network as on the WoW forums. It doesn’t surprise me that all four terms are misogynist in origin: the stereotypes are very old, and they certainly pre-date the feminist movement of the 20th century.

Most intelligent people will agree that negative stereotypes don’t apply to everyone, but there’s usually the sense that they apply to most people in a given category. I challenge that notion. Stereotypes are convenient. They offer an easy framework. It’s possible to act them out, and it’s possible to interpret people’s actions according to them–but that does not make stereotypes just or accurate, not for anyone.

In this article, I’m going to go through each of these four types and explain how, in my limited personal experience, I’ve seen them used to restrict or punish female gamers. I want to recognize the power that these stereotypes have as a lens for understanding the gaming world. At the end of the article, I will draw some conclusions about online feminism and offer some suggestions on how players–both male and female–can work to establish equality in the virtual world. In this article, I’m not arguing for replacing Lodur’s terms with gender-neutral “PC” phrasing. Instead, I encourage people to discard stereotypes altogether–both their names and their content–and undertake the far more difficult task of addressing every situation in all its messy specificity.

The Princess

Calling someone a “princess” implies that she is selfish, entitled, and weak. Storybook princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White need a man’s help to fully realize their life goals. Princesses don’t slay dragons–they get eaten by them. Remember Princess Peach from the Super Mario Brothers game? She’s an aloof, ungrateful brat who skips off to another castle the moment her brave hero unlocks her cage. My father, incidentally, calls me Princess when he wants to piss me off, especially if I’ve tried to borrow money. The very essence of the Princess is that she wants something for nothing, and she doesn’t want to say thank you. In Lodur’s article, he tries to explain how a Princess can be a man or a woman, but I don’t buy it. The Princess’s narrative is too coded in our culture as a woman’s story. The closest I can think of to the Princess stereotype for a man would be calling a gay man a “Queen”–but that means something quite different. It does strike me, writing this article, that women gamers face many of the same prejudices applied to gay male gamers, but that would be a topic for a different article. The Princess Gamer, as it were, is not very good at her chosen game. She’s nice and sweet, even “attractive,” if such can be said of a virtual personality, but she’s not capable of earning her place in a raid. She may be the significant other of a “real” raider–a sort of rider on his contract. Single or attached, the princess always needs someone to rescue her from her own inability to earn DKP!

My experience in WoW extends to three raiding guilds, one casual-raiding, one fairly serious guild, and one hardcore guild. In all three environments I have played with other women. Some of them were better-than-average, and some were worse. I can say with perfect confidence that my own skills are sufficient for a good raiding guild. I’m also not afraid to admit that several of the women I’ve played with were better than me! What I’ve never experienced, however, is a woman receiving preferential treatment despite poor play. Each guild had at least one woman officer, and in all three guilds, women received high-end loot. However, no one got more than her share. In fact, most of the women I knew received less than their male counterparts of similar skill and attendance. I’ve only seen one woman who managed to close this gap, truly getting an equal portion from the Loot Council without incurring any resentment in the process. She’s an excellent player who has never, ever talked on vent–the only way out of the Princess stereotype, it seems, is to effectively hide one’s gender. The shadow of the Princess haunts all women players who are “out” as women, and women raiders come under heavy scrutiny. In my recent experience, one woman player’s initiation period was extended far beyond what it should have been, just in case she made some mistakes down the line. When a woman is married to or dating another raider, she becomes doubly suspect. The assumption usually is that she plays only as a favor to her man, and that she sucks at the game. I’ll tell you now that my fiancé and I are a gaming couple, but good as he is, he follows me from guild to guild, not the other way around! However, people usually assume the opposite to be true.

The Diva

This idea brings me to the next stereotype, the Diva or Prima Donna, who by her very nature, wants everything. Unlike the Princess, the Diva gamer is actually a good player. The Diva is not like other women–she’s exceptional. The guild needs her, and she knows it. She makes ridiculous demands, and the rules don’t apply to her. Her attendance will be terrible, but she’ll expect the guild to save her a spot just in case she shows. Even if she has no DKP, she’ll expect people to pass her loot because, well, she’s the best. If there’s a new guild policy, she’ll certainly take offense to it. Unlike the Princess, who can be meek and beguiling, the Diva just can’t shut up. She always has an opinion, and she screams it from the mountaintop. Regarding the question of gender neutrality, I have, in fact, seen the terms Diva and Prima Donna applied to men, usually gay men. The implication of using the terms is that the man in question is behaving like a woman, and that such behavior is reprehensible. Even this category, which is the most applicable to men of all Lodur’s terms, never rises above is misogynist origins.

Every guild mistress or female guild officer confronts this stereotype at some point. I’ve been an officer in three guilds now, and I’m also a feminist. That means I rub elbows with the Diva stereotype any time I express my opinion. I am a thinking person, and I don’t lack for opinions. I’m not always right, of course, but I feel strongly about many things. I am quite capable of going on crusade if I feel that fairness is on the line. My point is that outspoken women incur risks in guilds that outspoken men do not. There’s a sense, especially in very hierarchical guilds, that not everyone has a right to an opinion. I’ve gotten more careful on this point over my years of gaming, and it sort of saddens me that I have done so. I’ve actually turned my mic off during raids to keep myself from speaking!

Lodur incorrectly connects up the word “virago” to vixen in his article, but I find it much more proper to give it a treatment under the diva category. A virago is a manly woman–a woman who looks, acts, or thinks like a man. The assumption is that “manly” behaviors like playing well, expressing one’s opinion, and getting angry are somehow unnatural in a woman. I’ve seen women respond in various ways to this idea, but most follow one of two patterns. Women seem to either embrace “masculine” behaviors or else over-perform “feminine” ones. In my former guild, an excellent female healer played two male toons and dissociated herself from all the other women raiders in an attempt to be “one of the guys.” She even named her main character after a beer! What she was doing, essentially, was getting herself out of the diva stereotype by embracing the virago. In my case, I’m always more likely to make a performance of my gender in ways that display to the guild. I collect cute pets, and I display them proudly in raids. I change my hairstyle often, and I comment on others’ trips to the barber shop. I talk about kittens, rainbows, and unicorns in guild chat. This assault of cute is, I think, meant to reassure my guild that I am, in fact, a “real” woman with a soft side, and not a heartless bitch. Both responses to the diva stereotype ring false to me–I suspect that neither represents the real player’s personality.

The Vixen, the She-Wolf, and the Bitch

I’ve deviated from Lodur’s formulation here in order to combine a group of like stereotypes. Each word refers to a female animal, and all three terms have to do with women’s sexuality. The Vixen is the seductress, the She-Wolf the deceiver, and the Bitch the punisher of men. I’ll invoke the term Femme Fatale as well here, as that may be a more familiar image for some readers. The Femme Fatale is actually all three of these things, and that’s what makes her so deadly. The animal metaphors I use here imply that women are less than human–they are savage beasts, much to be feared by male gamers. The deep assumption is, of course, that women’s sexuality is by nature deviant or wrong, that all women should be good little prudes. As animal types, these women go about their destructive behaviors without thinking–they are primal forces, out to disturb the happy homosocial world of male gamers.

Lodur uses the “Vixen” as the archetype of a seductress. This woman uses her sexuality to get what she wants or needs. The innuendos fly thick and fast, and she’s able to keep a straight face as her male “victim” blushes. What does she want? It’s not entirely clear. She may just be lonely, and those late-night tête-à-têtes on vent might be her most meaningful connection to another person. What is clear, however, is that any romance with a Vixen is doomed. It most definitely will not work out in the end–the motif is a tragic one. Most guilds don’t really appreciate star-crossed love affairs among their raiders! To the patriarchal raiding guild, mixing feelings with progress is a threat indeed.

As for the She-Wolf, she’s an animal of a different sort. While the Vixen might be seen as needy or lonely, the Wolf is a predator. She’s crafty and devious, taking advantage of “innocent” men. Lodur applies this term almost exclusively to men who pretend to be women in-game in order to enthrall their fellows into giving them gold or items. The Wolf uses her sexuality as a weapon, and her tools are morally suspect–racy whispers filled with innuendo, even cyber sex. It’s an equivalent to online prostitution, and I have no doubt that there are in fact some real cases of such behavior. What’s less clear to me is how typical these cases are, as I’ve never witnessed one or heard of one from a reliable witness.

The Bitch, on the other hand, is the logical endpoint of all the animal archetypes. The Bitch is the female version of the Grim Reaper. She is out-and-out hostile towards men and has very little use for them. She lives to wreak havoc, and she laughs at men’s pain. The fear, of course, is that both the relatively innocuous Vixen and the more sinister Wolf will, at some point, remove the mask and reveal themselves as the Bitch. All of the Femme Fatale types end at the Bitch, unfortunately for everyone.

Of the group of stereotypes I’ve discussed in this article, I find the animal types the most humiliating for women. All of them have something to do with women’s sexuality, and the overwhelming implication is that any invocation of sexuality in an online context has a sinister purpose. That’s fairly ironic, considering that your average male gamer is no prude. Sexual innuendo is a huge part of gamer culture, especially raiding culture, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Some dirty jokes offend me, sure (especially rape jokes, for obvious reasons), but most are innocuous. They are simply the result of putting a mixed group of adults together, encouraging them to have a few beers, and then giving them microphones. As far as online relationships go, in my experience the good outnumber the bad. I’ve known one gaming couple to go on to marry and another to date for more than a year. In both cases, there were no animals involved.

The Truth About Vixens and Bitches

For every feminine stereotype I’ve invoked here, I could probably come up with male ones as well. We could fill the whole barnyard with Pigs, Dogs, and even Teddy Bears, but that wouldn’t be very fair either. The truth is that stereotypes are attractive because they make things easy. They give us a means by which to fit our guildmates into predetermined, simple narratives. Stereotypes break down the mess of reality into easily digestible pieces, but they do not represent that reality fairly or equitably. Real situations are complex, and real personalities defy easy definition. These stereotypes, or cultural types, do in fact come from somewhere, but not from the truth of everyday, ordinary gamer experience. They existed before the invention of the MMO, and they apply much more widely.

Most of these negative female stereotypes hint at, in some oblique way, survival techniques that minorities of different types have used to get ahead in a society that is unfriendly to them. They are, in feminist terms, tricks of the weak–in order words, the most convenient strategies available to disadvantaged groups. They may be present in gaming life because women are truly a minority. I’m not saying these are good techniques to use; rather, I’m pointing out that the stereotypes are exaggerated versions of real phenomena. Even though WoW is famous for attracting women players, in my observation women make up less than 10% of the raiding corps of most serious guilds. As such, women are at a serious disadvantage, and not much can be gained within a guild by the techniques of feminism–solidarity and rational discourse. In order for solidarity to take effect, a woman has to go outside her tiny guild community to form bonds with other female gamers. I would say that the WoW blogosphere provides solidarity for many women bloggers and has the kind of active, intelligent community of men and women needed to carry on rational discourse. Inside the male-dominated micro-community of the raiding guild, many women might choose to play dumb and hope not to be noticed. They might represent themselves as the exception–the one woman who’s not like all the other “bad” ones. They might do what I do, and use unicorns and rainbows to disarm their guildmates before expressing their opinions. They might even flirt with men in their guild! Heavens preserve us from these evil acts. While women might display unwelcome behaviors or even, consciously or unconsciously, perform one of the aforementioned stereotypes, I doubt that there are very many Evil Women Gamers who are out to cause trouble. There is absolutely no reason to exclude women from raiding or from guild leadership. It won’t stop drama–because nothing can.

As I understand it, human beings have a great capacity to do evil–it is perhaps as great even as their capacity to do good. It’s not just women who love guild drama–it’s all people. There is a part of all of us that seeks chaos and destruction, and in the relative anonymity of the online world, drama is common because it has low stakes. Those who form part of online communities should understand that. Yes, do what you can to keep the peace–but that shouldn’t involve excluding women. The best way to keep drama out of a guild would be to have no members, but then it wouldn’t be very much like a guild.

For women, it is worth noting that the stereotypes themselves have a certain attractiveness. It’s possible to live out a type, and this is usually done unconsciously. My advice is for every person to be analytical about his or her own behavior. Play against type, and don’t seek out the chaos. Make sure that it’s you–not the prescribed storyline for female gamers–making decisions.

I’m Not a Feminist, But. . .

Most of the time, I use my virtual soap-box to tell people how to game, not how to live. In this one case, I’m going to make an exception. Call me a bitch or a diva if you will–I expect it. I will also tell you what I really am. I am a feminist. As a bonus, I will even tell you how I got there.

When I was a freshman in college, I took an English class with Pat Johansson, one of the Deans. She was one of those people that you’d never want to mess with. A tiny grey-haired woman who walked with a cane, she nonetheless had a presence that commanded instant respect. Only now, as a college professor myself, can I appreciate the amount of effort that it must have taken her to produce that effect. In one class session, we were discussing women’s roles in society, and I prefaced a comment with “I’m not a feminist, but. . . ” I’ll never forget what happened next. Dean Johansson stood up, assisted by her cane, and declared to the whole class that ANYONE who said such a thing was, in fact, a feminist, but was lying to herself to please men. I was extremely embarrassed at the time, but now I am grateful. That moment has stuck with me, and ever since, I’ve made exactly the same response to every woman I’ve ever heard repeat that hackneyed turn of phrase. Dean Johansson forced me to be honest with myself. Did I believe that I should receive the same salary as a man who did the same job as me? Yes. Did I believe that women and men had equal potential? Yes. Did I think that I should have access to an education? Yes. Did I think that women should be free to create their own life narratives, independent from the stereotypes? Resoundingly, yes.

Now, feminism might mean different things to different people, but at its most basic, it’s about equality. The stereotypes about women gamers restrict what women can be or do in game by guiding people’s understanding of their behavior. Gaming society ought to be a sort of utopia–after all, we choose our avatars, and they can free us of the constraints of class, race, and even gender. Equality ought to be easier, not harder, to achieve in the game world, but the opposite is true. MMOs are a sort of frontier society, and like the Wild Wild West, they are unfriendly to the few women who venture beyond the borders of the civilized world. I find more gender discrimination in-game than out, and part of the blame can be laid at the door of pervasive stereotypes about female gamers. I urge you, dear reader, to think very carefully before applying any one of these terms to a real person. I think you’ll find the cookie cutters a poor fit. If anything I’ve said in this article strikes your imagination, I urge you to consider whether you are, in fact, a feminist, or rather, an e-feminist. And yes, I think that men can be feminists too. Do you think that women should have an equal opportunity to play in raiding guilds? Do you think that they should receive the same loot as men for the same effort? Do you think that women should be judged as individuals and not types?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, I urge you to put the Princess, the Diva, the Vixen, the Wolf, and the Bitch behind you. Regardless of your intent in using them, discerning reader, these words have their own connotations, and they are decidedly misogynist. Instead of taking advantage of the convenience of stereotypes, I urge you to address drama and misbehavior in your own guilds in their very messy and complicated specificity. Believe me, the results of thinking outside of types will do both you–and the object of your analysis–more credit.

Sympathy for a Griefer?

Sympathy for a Griefer?

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If you’ve ever wondered what happens when PhD meets MMO, here’s an interesting read for you. It’s a far cry from carebear Professor Syd, but I find this bit of research interesting just because it differs so much from my own outlook on the game world. A couple weeks ago, nola.com ran an article on Loyola professor David Myers detailing his experience in the MMO City of Heroes / City of Villains. This article links to a draft of Meyers’ own academic paper on the subject, “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt,” which is the most thorough treatment of the matter. Normally, I support any and all research about online games, but for some reason, this one pushes my buttons. I’m not the first blogger to comment on the matter. In fact, I think that many of my thoughts are in agreement with Spinks’ excellent article.

The “Experiment”

Myers, who has since left CoH/V, had been an ordinary player of the MMO for some time when NCsoft, the developer, introduced PvP to the game. I’ve never played CoH/V myself, but from Myers’ description, gameplay seems to be almost exclusively PvE. A new world PvP zone, Recluse’s Victory, changed the game for Myers’ character Twixt. He decided to PvP in the most aggressive manner available, and in the process of winning at all costs, well, he attracted a bit of criticism. As I’ve never played CoH/V myself, I have to abstract from a description, but it seems that Recluse’s Victory had several captureable nodes for each side, similar perhaps to the Alterac Valley towers. There are also a mix of NPCs in the zone, including some unbeatable guard-like creatures called drones meant to protect the two “safe zones” where players spawn. To a WoW player, this probably sounds like good fun, right? The Heroes beat the crap out of the Villains, and vice versa, and everyone has a grand old time. However, according to Myers’ claims, all he (and his avatar Twixt) wanted to do was force people to PvP in the PvP zone. That sounds perfectly rational, as far as it goes.

However, Twixt did not routinely engage others in “true” PvP. His preferred technique was to enlist NPCs in his cause, and as such, win battles without struggle. Twixt chose to learn an ability called teleporting, which I see as analogous to the Death Knight’s Death Grip. He used this skill to move enemies a short distance–right into the drones, which would instantly kill the opposing player. Because a death to a drone counted as a PvE death, players would incur what is called XP “debt.” Now, I am not quite sure what this is, but it seems to cost people a good bit of time (like re-leveling) before they can advance. Indeed, Twixt PvP’d in a PvP zone. However, the manner in which he did so would certainly be termed, in WoW anyway, an exploit. As a result, many players grew angry at Twixt and vented their frustrations in chat and on the CoH/V forums.

What is Real PvP Anyway?

As generations of games and their players have defined it, PvP is, at its core, a one on one engagement between two players of equal potential though perhaps not equal mastery of the game mechanics. At its purest, PvP is a duel of honor, evoking very consciously, and with a great deal of nostalgia, the chivalric tourney or ritual hand-to-hand combat. I will say that PvP combat, while it may be supposed to resemble, say, the showdown between Hector and Achilles, reminds me much more often of Peter Jackson’s chaotic Battle of Pelennor Fields (except that usually I’m one of the pitiful orcs on the losing side). In any case, PvP often does not seem very honorable to me. It reminds me, rather, of the very real butchery that occurred on the battlefield and off in the historical Middle Ages. Our nostalgia for chivalry is based mostly on idealized forms of art rather than actual history–and so one might say that “chivalry” achieves one of its fullest expressions in video games.

As for me personally, I’d rather not be involved in PvP, honorable or no. I play on a PvP server, but I don’t actually PvP anymore. I used to like Alterac Valley back in Classic, but I didn’t raid then, and it was the most exciting endgame option I had. I don’t love it when I get ganked while doing my daily quests. However, I shrug it off, knowing that the technique is perfectly fair in WoW. At the current time, I play Syd as a pacifist. I find it better for my blood pressure not to retaliate against gankers. I’m a healer–of course they can kill me if they like. I usually take the opportunity to get away from the keyboard for a while. When I come back, the ganker has always been gone.

The Developers’ Responsibility

I don’t think I could work up any particular hatred for the numerous horde players who have killed me as I’ve gone about my PvE business. Some of them have even used techniques similar to Twixt’s by waiting until I engage an enemy mob to start their attack, thus enlisting the game environment against me. I think that the reason I can’t muster any fire over this has to do with WoW itself and Blizzard as a company. We play an actively maintained game with integrated PvP. When there are PvP balance issues, Blizzard addresses them. Some of us may consider their response too slow, but the fact remains that the “gods” of WoW listen to the pleas of their suppliants. For an example that offers an instructive parallel to Twixt’s story, think back to the Zombie Invasion event that preceded the release of Wrath of the Lich King. For that time period, we were supposed to turn people into zombies, kill NPCs, and interrupt the ordinary business of buying, selling, and leveling with our zombie disease. Many players got a hateful response like Twixt did when they attempted to participate in the event as intended, taking over cities and killing with abandon. What did Blizzard do? They recognized that the community, as a whole, disliked the event and ended it after three days. Some complained, but I see it as a wise move, even though I, in very atypical fashion, had a bit of fun being a zombie. The point is that Blizzard recognizes the importance of players’ customs–and also players’ safety–and adapts their game. I have heard scattered stories of people being g-kicked for overzealousness with the zombie event, but by ending the event when they did, Blizzard protected both the pro-zombie and anti-zombie factions.

I have no sense that NCsoft maintains CoH/V in such an active way. Thus, the community of CoH/V is left to fend for itself and make its own rules. Even CoH/V’s forums are maintained by players and not NCSoft employees! What a difference from the WoW forums. In the world of CoH/V, the gods are absent or hostile, Hector and Achilles are six feet under, and players are left to deal with the “deviant” Twixt on their own. At least from the players’ perspective, Twixt is a griefer. In their opinion, he kills people using unfair tactics, in a manner that leaves them handicapped and with no opportunity to fight back or take revenge. In short, Twixt is cruel. It doesn’t surprise me that many responded with vitriol. Most of these comments were your typical “f-you” sort of things, but Meyers received at least one death threat.

What are the Rules?

Myers insists that he “played by the rules” when others refused to. He cites examples of duels of honor within RV, collaboration between Heroes and Villians (who, incredibly, could talk to each other while inside the PvP zone), and farming within the PvP zone as instances of players violating the rules. Now, I am an avid gatherer of herbs in Wintergrasp, and I don’t think I’m violating anything–after all, why would there be Lichbloom if I’m not supposed to pick it? It seems to me that, at once, Myers has both a broad and a narrow definition of game rules. It’s certainly idiosyncratic. As I see it, Twixt abides by two principles:

1. Anything that is possible to do within the game mechanics is fair game.
2. Any custom that the players establish is not a rule.

To address the first, I’ll return to an old topic of mine, that of exploits. It’s always hard to tell what the developers intend or do not intend. In my previous article, I reflected on several cases in WoW in which players were banned for “exploits” that were possible within game mechanics and not covered by the EULA. If Twixt were a WoW player, he would risk a permanent ban. The Blizzard developers actively track and eliminate exploits. Twixt’s drone technique would certainly be deemed an exploit if it existed in WoW, for the simple reason that it gives the victim no chance to react before he is annihilated. In WoW, small changes are made all the time to the battleground and arena environments in order to make for “fairer” play. Moreover, Blizzard has made it abundantly clear through their banning practices that players are meant to keep to the spirit, not just the letter, of game mechanics. Pushing the boundaries often results in a ban. I am usually sympathetic to players who receive bans for deviant behavior. Why can I not muster the same level of compassion for Meyers?

On Empathy

There are very complicated forces at work here. On the one hand, we have Twixt, a self-styled video game rebel. I usually celebrate rebels. For a contemporary example, I really loved the movie Bruno. I’m still not sure whether certain parts reinforce homophobia, but I will say that I laughed and clapped through the whole thing. I like Sacha Baron Cohen’s ideological project, though I will be the first to admit that his personae of Bruno and Borat can be downright predatory. Do I laugh because I agree with Cohen’s politics? Does a part of me think that Cohen’s targets are fair game? I have to say, though, that at times I sympathize more with Cohen’s victims. Many of the people depicted in Bruno–Ron Paul comes to mind–conduct themselves with relative dignity. Sometimes the joke returns on Bruno to the detriment of Cohen’s political message. Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. I think that it is the sense of give-and-take in the Sacha Baron Cohen films, along with their not-so-hidden agenda of advocating for social change, that makes me like them. It’s easy to like an utter fool like Bruno, even though I would call many of his stunts cruel. It’s very hard to like Twixt.

What Twixt Doesn’t Understand

I was so interested by Myers’ research that I corresponded with him in his blog comments. Sadly, he’s now closed them down. It always seems that intellectual conversations have to end once I’m finally learning something from them! In our give-and-take, what impressed me the most was Myers’ inability to understand what happened to him. There’s a sort of forced naiveté to his tone that surprises me. In the blog comments, I expressed my sympathy for the death threats Myers received, but I also tried to explain to him why players were so angry. To most people who play MMOs, the rules of custom and social interaction matter. They are not there to “experiment” with the virtual world. They are there to live in it. To them, their community is very real. I understand this, because I do not play for research–I play for fun. There is some doubt in my mind as to what kind of gamer Myers was. In his paper, he represents his time in CoH/V as an experiment in deviant behavior. Oddly, in his comments to me on the blog, he says that it wasn’t an experiment at all–just the way he played. I’m puzzled by that, though I realize that for a professional publication, it might be advantageous to represent one’s actions purely as research. In his paper, Myers says that he tried to breach known social customs while working within the rules of the game–all to prove a point. It seems though, that he greatly regrets the hostile response he received. It seems that he neither wanted nor expected the unfriendly response of other players. On this point, at least, I feel sorry for him. He seems–to me anyway–like the little boy who kicks down another child’s sandcastle and then is very surprised when the second boy (or girl) punches him in the nose. Of course, the punch is the greater offense, but it does not mean that the first child did not also feel genuine hurt. At the core of it, Twixt is a bully. Now, he’s not a very harmful one in the grand scheme of things, but he is a bully nonetheless. I guess he expected his opponents to run away crying instead of socking him in the nose.

It’s all the Developers’ Fault, Redux

I’m pretty well-known for criticizing game developers. In fact, it seems like all I do is protest against Blizzard’s policies. In this case, I’m about to lionize Blizzard (I know, check to see if hell has frozen over) and lambaste NCsoft. I may hate the tone that Blizzard developers take when they address their community, but I have to give them credit for actively maintaining their game. The way I see it, it is the developers’ responsibility to provide a safe gaming environment for all. The developers ought to have both protected Myers and undermined Twixt’s influence on the game world. If I were the developers, I would have taken the following steps to solve the Twixt dilemma.
1. Shut down the ability to chat across factions. It seems incredible to me that a game would allow for such venting of rage. There is a good reason that no one has invented a loudspeaker that could project road-rage inspired comments into the next car.
2. Permanently ban the players that threatened Twixt or started malicious rumors about his real-life pursuits.
3. Get rid of the drones. Twixt’s technique strikes me as an unintended use of game mechanics. Meyers calls it “exploring system potentials,” and I call it exploit. Only NCsoft knows for sure, but what is certain is that the developers could have created peace in their game world by getting rid of these things or making them weak enough to allow a player to escape.

Does Twixt have a Place in the Virtual World?

Meyers eventually quit CoH/V, worn down by what he saw as harassment. It didn’t occur to him to change his behavior, and I still don’t think he understands the response he got. Case in point: Meyers was surprised when his Heroes guild kicked him. This “sudden and unexpected expulsion” came about when Myers, logged onto a Villain alt known to his Heroes guild members, turned his droning technique against a member of his own guild. Who would do this and not expect someone to be upset? Now, Myers might say that guilds are “against the rules” as they are not officially talked about in the EULA. What guilds usually do is make the world nicer. They give a person friends and allies. They try to inspire loyalty. The code may be unwritten, but it is nonetheless a code. I will also note that, as a former GM, a g-kick does not qualify as harassment–it’s not harassment to disapprove of someone’s behavior or to dissociate oneself or one’s organization from them. Once again, Myers comes off as incredibly naive. If he wanted to gank members of his own guild, why not do so on an anonymous alt? He just can’t understand why others are angry at him. So, not only will the bully kick down an unknown kid’s sandcastle, but he will do the same to his brother’s. I have a younger sibling myself who was a holy terror as a child. As an adult, at least he understands why it was not cool to play “shark” and bite me in the swimming pool. As adults, we’re great friends and can laugh about such things, though I have to say, if he walks near the edge of a pool I’m definitely pushing him in. Myers can’t understand why the game of “shark” is only fun for the shark. Twixt plays to win, and he plays for science, but he doesn’t play to understand human beings. As such, his place in the virtual world grew smaller. He laments in his paper that he was the victim of “ridicule and the threat (or actuality) of social ostracism.” Eventually, he was forced into being a lone wolf–the only shark in an empty swimming pool. While I might feel a bit sorry for him, I will assert that he should have expected this consequence from the outset of the “experiment.” I do think he had a right to play as he did, at least until such time as NCsoft decided to curb that playstyle, but at the same time, he should have recognized the simple principle that actions have consequences. Very few people have the determination to continue ganking, or biting others, or kicking down sandcastles so far past the point when others disapprove the behavior. It must have taken a good bit of single-mindedness to accomplish it. One of Myers’ detractors, cited in Myers’ paper, says quite eloquently: “It’s almost like he’s an NPC, and if you consider him in that light everything makes a lot more sense.” Maybe so.

Is Meyers’ Research Dangerous?

I am always sensitive to the representation of MMO gaming in the press. My worst fear is that some popular news outlet could get wind of this story, and without understanding a thing about MMOs or their communities, conclude that gamers are vicious, deviant, and homicidal. I would counter that humanity itself is rather vicious. From my knowledge of history, I conclude that we, as a species, work much more often toward the greater evil than the greater good. I see human history, fundamentally, as a tragedy. Despite attempts at peace, empathy, and progress, we so easily devolve into violence. Perhaps Myers experienced some of that violence, about which I am regretful. I would say, though, that in my experience MMOs are no more violent–and sometimes less so–than real life. Maybe I am colored by my own experience, but for every hostile idiot, there are about a hundred carebears in the game world. I don’t know which category to place Myers in. He’s certainly not an idiot, but he is a bit hostile–even to me in the blog comments, though of course, I could have simply misunderstood the tone. What bothers me about Myers is that he is fundamentally unable to appreciate that other players might define the purpose of the game differently from him, just as they are unable to understand his play style. Myers has a very sophisticated set of academic rhetorical strategies to justify his view. The other players involved only have the textual violence of “f-you” tells and posts. However, the failure of understanding is on both sides.

On Exploits: A Philosophical Musing

On Exploits: A Philosophical Musing

a chivalric engagement

There’s been much talk lately, on WoM and elsewhere, of in-game “exploits” and their proper punishment. Most recently, Exodus has been censured with a 72-hour suspension for taking using Yogg’s mechanics to their advantage. A while back, Karatechop of Vek’nilash received a permanent ban for using the god-mode Martin Fury shirt. Even further in distant memory, Ensidia publicly admitted to using a buff from Freya trash to complete a “mathematically impossible” hard-mode Hodir. In this post I am going to muse about what is right, what is fair, and what is permissible in the World of Warcraft. Let me make clear that I don’t condone cheating, but it does make me sad when players get punished for actions that they don’t realize are wrong, especially when there’s no clear rule or precedent.

On Play

In such ambiguous cases, I almost always sympathize with the so-called cheaters. To explain why, I’ll share a few thoughts on the philosophical bent of World of Warcraft. First of all, it presents itself as a game. In any ludic world (ludic being a fancy pants academic word to describe an environment in which play is permitted), the “rules” are relaxed. Don Quijote, for example, operates in a ludic world of his own creation. Thus, the self-styled knight is exempt from rules that apply to “normal” people. Don Quijote has created his own “rules” as he plays at being a knight–according to him, he no longer needs to eat or sleep, he doesn’t have to pay when he stays at an inn, his wounds will magically heal when he applies a mixture of rosemary, olive oil, and salt to them, and windmills and other giants of industry deserve a good beating.

The World of Warcraft is by definition ludic, and no one, least of all Blizzard, should be surprised when people do things that aren’t exactly normal. In fact, I’d say that gaming encourages players to test the limits. Is theorycrafting an exploit? I should say not. But when players of a game optimize, they tend to do so to the limit of their abilities. I would say Exodus’ kill of Yogg+0 was pretty darned clever, even though it’s been ruled illegal. I’m sure I wouldn’t do the same thing myself–because I’m both too dumb to figure it out and too fearful to follow through with it. Without a precedent to tell me them that the technique was wrong, how was Exodus supposed to know? What they did falls under the aegis of being creative on a boss kill. Sure, I’m much more likely to do things like Wowwiki says I should, but how do the pioneers draw the line between brilliance and exploit? After all, the word “exploit” is used just as often in a positive light, to mean a great deed, as it is to indicate taking unfair advantage.

On War

The idea of the “exploit” as a masterful feat brings me to my next point. We all play a game called World of WARcraft. Notice the war in Warcraft? While the old proverb claims that “all’s fair in love and war,” most educated readers probably realize that warfare does in fact have rules. It always has, from ancient times until now, and these rules are culturally determined. The rules of war work to preserve life, particularly among civilians and other innocents, but also among soldiers themselves. However, these rules of engagement are always changing. For example, the insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan is helping to establish new parameters for warfare–for better or for worse.

For me personally, I am a pacifist. No one is ever going to convince me that there is glory to be found in killing and maiming other human beings. However, I’m fascinated by battlefields. They bring out feelings of sadness, loss, and anger at the stupidity of humanity–and yes, I’m just the kind of person to wallow in such melancholy imaginings. I recently stopped at Gettysburg on my drive from NY to NC–there are few things that bring me to tears, but reflecting on human suffering on a mass scale does it every time. As a southerner and a passionate advocate of equal rights for all, any Civil War battlefield evokes in me a mixture of guilt and nostalgia that I can’t quite get anywhere else. Since my Gettysburg visit, I’ve been reading up on the different generals whose names I saw on the monuments. I can tell you based on even a little reading that in times of war, I’d rather serve under a general who pushes the boundaries than one who does not. If I have to be an ordinary Confederate soldier, I’m probably going to be killed or mutilated anyway, my amputated limbs stacked up like cordwood outside the makeshift camp hospital, but give me Longstreet over Lee any day as my commander. In the case of the Civil War, an ignominious, guerilla-style defense kept people alive where a gallant frontal attack would get them killed.

The point is that the rules of war are not fixed. What worked for Napoleon won’t work for Lee, and what seems most “honorable” is often most stupid. In our World of Warcraft, the designers should expect people to be constantly testing the limits. That’s why I don’t support banning people for exploits–essentially, you’re banning players for an excessively winning strategy. It’s hard to argue that Karatechop’s magic shirt technique was a failure, though it certainly was a cheat. However, killing a virtual robot without hardly trying does not seem like a “war” crime to me–no innocent bystanders, after all, were injured in the course of said illegal kill. In cases where malice is not present, what I would do is suspend rather than ban the player. Why would Blizzard want to ban people for using the best strategem available in their personal “war” against internet dragons?

On Honor

Along with play and warfare, I’d say the third principle that the World of Warcraft depends on is honor. We’re encouraged to seek out “honor” and “honor points” through PvP–which means the brutal killing of “enemy” players. Many quest texts also appeal to our sense of personal honor. “Honor” however, is not one singular concept but rather something that is both culturally and individually determined. Before commenters chime in that I have no idea what honor is, I’d like to say that in my day job as an academic, I study chivalry. This means, among other things, that King Arthur and his very honorable knights might as well be my best buddies. I think I have a good idea what honor is in the chivalric sense. It means a sort of personal integrity, an adherence to a code. However, for the Knights of the Round Table, this code is rather idiosyncratic. Certain parts are common to all. For example, an honorable knight aids the helpless, shows mercy when his opponent yields, keeps his bargains, and behaves himself when he is a guest in someone else’s home. However, for some knights, honor comes to include not only these secular virtues but also religious ones like purity and chastity (Percival or Galahad), while for others, “honor” is pretty close to the aphorism that might makes right (Yvain or Tristan). “Honor” also sometimes means defending oneself against real or perceived insults, often with bloody results. Honor is always idiosyncratic, and it has always caused social trouble–just ask Desdemona how she feels about the concept!

Now, since “honor” in World of Warcraft is tied to the PvP system, isn’t it closer to the “might makes right” model? How then, are we supposed to know how to be “honorable” when it comes to in-game bugs? I’d say there are some serious philosophical conflicts in WoW. The case that most stands out to me is the Martin Fury shirt, probably because the two players involved, Karatechop and Leroyspeltz, play on my old server Vek’nilash and are both acquaintances of mine. Leroy and I were in the same casual guild for about a year and were co-officers for part of that time. I can testify to Leroy’s lack of malice–he’s the kind of happy-go-lucky casual player that Blizzard is usually happy to support. In fact, my first response when I saw the story was not “Leroy, you cheater!” but “Leroy, how could you be so stupid!” My feeling is that Leroy, and probably Karatechop too, are innocent victims of their own failure to understand how Blizzard works.

On Fear

In a game where one earns “honor points” for randomly killing people whom they have no reason to fight as they’re trying to finish their Hodir dailies, how do I, as a player, know what I should and should not do? I do, in fact, wish to be as “honorable” as Galahad …but it’s hard to figure out what that means in WoW. I’d have to say that my code of personal honor in WoW has to do with how I treat other players (kindly, of course) rather than how I approach game mechanics. As for my philosophy on PvE, I turn to Machiavelli, who tells us that if one wants to be an effective leader, it is far better to be feared than loved. I fear, rather than love, the Blizzard developers. I have spent quite a lot of time building Syd and developing an in-game social network. I couldn’t bear to lose her. In the whole Martin Fury debacle, the only thing that bothers me from the players’ side is Karatechop’s cavalier attitude toward getting his guild and raid members suspended. I would be furious if I were a victim of such shenanigans. I would be grieved and regretful if I had inadvertedly deprived anyone of their character for any length of time.

Because I fear Blizzard, I take a pretty hard line on cheating and exploits for myself. I won’t buy gold or fight a boss in a doorway because it’s easier, even though neither of those actions seem “malicious” to me. Sure, on Prince Malchezzar my raid spent quite a lot of time figuring out the best “spot”–but I can also tell you that we never found the magic nook or cranny that made Prince beg for mercy and give us our helmets for free. If we had, I probably would have insisted that we take him back to the middle. I’m all for innovation, but I err on the side of caution–not because exploiting feels “wrong,” but because I fear the consequences. Heck, I even worry if I make a lot of money in the same day on the AH. Sometimes I get lucky to the tune of a couple thousand gold, and I find myself looking over my shoulder. I do the same thing whenever I see a police car on the highway, even though I never speed.

On Right and Wrong

Many things that I feel are “wrong,” like corpse camping a lowbie or shouting racial slurs in General chat, are never punished in game. Many actions that seem less dishonorable, like gold-buying or using an item one received in the mail, result in permanent bans. How am I to tell what is right and what is wrong? My internal standard for good and evil doesn’t seem to work when it comes to WoW. The Terms of Use itself is rather vague, and it cannot serve as my guide to virtue and prosperity. As a player, I try to do my best by others (you’ll never catch me ganking Horde) and err on the side of caution when it comes to the Terms of Use. After all, the TOU pretty much declares that whatever Blizzard decides is wrong, IS wrong. That sounds pretty Machiavellian to me.

Patch 3.2 in Brief

So I’m a little long-winded. My typical posts run somewhere in the 2000 word range, with the longest of them hitting a staggering 4000 words. As a personal challenge, I am going to provide a little commentary on multiple aspects of Patch 3.2 . . . in two sentences or less. Patch changes are listed in descending order according to the very scientific standard of my personal interest in them.

Coliseum Raid Instance

Five bosses is far too few for a new raid dungeon, regardless of how many times we can play through it in a week. Also, if Blizzard thinks I’m going to be satisfied fighting a Jormungar that looks like every other big worm just because it drops Tier 9, they are fooling themselves.

Normal and Heroic Versions for both 10 and 25 players

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I really don’t enjoy killing the same boss repeatedly–regardless of the “extras” in hardmode–in the same week. I used to really, really hate the 3-day reset on Zul Aman for that reason.

New Druid Art

I applaud any and all new artwork in game, including the pink kitty. Now, if I can have one of these forms, I might just go feral myself.

Resto Tier 9 Bonuses

Lackluster compared to Tier 8. HoT ticks that can crit will have less impact than a small front-end instant heal on Rejuvenation.

Three Flavors of Tier 9

They had better not be Rum Raisin, Licorice, and Bubble Gum. In all seriousness, the designers need to take care that the color mix doesn’t make us all look like clowns.

Lifebloom Nerf

Wait, didn’t they realize that the Bloom is nearly 100% overheal anyway? This spell’s now awkward mechanics and situational use have already minimized its place in my rotation, and I’m quite sure that we don’t need it at all as things stand.

New Resto Idol

This will be the new must-have Resto druid accessory, more stylish even than a pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Changes to Mp5 allocation

It’s about time! Even in BC this stat was too “expensive” for its value.

Upgrades to Profession Bonuses

These are all fantastic and I applaud them, but I had really wanted a new alchemist stone. I just really like the idea of manufacturing my own Pet Rock of Uber.

Epic Gems Available

There goes all my hard earned flask money! Seriously, did we even need these?

Reuseable Flask of the North

Why haven’t they thought of this before?

New Moonkin Idol

Probably not as good as the Resto idol since Moonfire is a low-priority spell.

New Heirloom Item

With this stacking bonus, my baby priest will be leveled up to . . . 40 in no time, before I forget her again.

Streamlined Emblem System

Golf claps. The system as it was could be pretty awkward, and at this point in progression it’s appropriate to use emblem gear to facilitate a reroll.

New Pets

I want a baby raptor, especially if he makes a cute squeaky noise.

More Argent Tournament Dailies

I wish I didn’t have to have exalted reputations to unlock them. Dailies are a nice thing to do on alts, and I’ll be stuck doing them on Syd–I just can’t really see myself getting the Argent Dawn/Crusade rep a second time.

More Argent Tournament Mounts

The dailies didn’t hold enough of my interest for me to buy even one of the mounts yet, so I’m indifferent. I still have two pets to go as well.

More Tasks For My Argent Tournament Squire

I love how Averna calls him her pet boy. I humiliate mine by making him carry the Gnomeregan flag, and I can’t wait to make him fetch my dry cleaning.

Changes to Mounts and Mount Prices

I am extremely puzzled by anyone who opposes these much needed quality-of-life changes. To them, I will only say that every generation, as it ages, always claims that when they were young, things were “much better” because they had to work “much harder”–It’s annoying when Gramps says it, and it’s annoying when you post it on the forums.

Venomhide Ravasaur for the Horde

That’s just ducky, but why doesn’t Blizz let everyone get both this mount and the Winterspring Frostsaber? I have never understood the resistance to cross-faction mounts.

Changes to Shield Block on Items

This is not a genuine fix to warriors and paladins, and is barely a bandaid. I still foresee a day of reckoning ahead for tank balance.

New Battleground

Funny, I still haven’t managed to visit Strand of the Ancients yet . . .

What Can Healing Meters Tell You?

What Can Healing Meters Tell You?

meters
The conflict over healing meters is an old topic, on this blog, the WoW healing forums, the PlusHeal forums, and, for many of you, within your own guilds. While it’s widely accepted that meters are one of the best tools dps players can use to analyze their performance, the usefulness of meters when it comes to healing or tanking has always been in doubt. The official line from Ghostcrawler is that meters can’t tell healers very much about their own effectiveness. The following story is a tidbit taken from a forum topic on Shaman PvE healing. I first read it, however, in a repost on my own guild’s site. It seems that whenever the developers comment on healing meters, people take notice. Ghostcrawler says:

We were talking about healing this very fight [XT hardmode] just yesterday. One of the designers had an interesting experience. Their first Holy priest had much larger healing (total and effective) on the fight than their second Holy priest, so they asked the second priest to go Shadow. They kept wiping. They then swapped them, and made the star Holy priest go Shadow. The second Holy priest’s healing was much lower, but they won on the first try. The second priest just had better timing and cast the right spell at the right moment, even though his total and effective healing was lower overall. The moral of the story is meters are very useful, but like any tool, their ability to measure what happens in reality has limitations. In my experience, players put too much emphasis on them, especially for healing.

I have to say that GC’s Tale of Two Priests seems apocryphal to me. As my guild members pointed out in our website discussion, this is an odd situation that we can’t really imagine in any of our raids. It seems–to us anyway–that there’s not enough information here to judge what really happened. One of my guildies suggested that maybe the “star” Holy Priest was also really good at Shadow, and that seems pretty reasonable to me. However, what’s clear is that Ghostcrawler–who, let’s face it, has more information than you or I do–thinks people put too much emphasis on meters.

The truth of the matter is that healing meters CAN tell you a good number of things about a healer’s overall effectiveness. The trick is learning to read them with a critical eye. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that I probably like and use healing meters more than most healing bloggers I read, and certainly more than Ghostcrawler. However, in my own guild, I’m usually in the anti-meters faction. Ironically, our guild’s biggest advocate for healing meters is not himself a healer. There’s no guarantee that a guild’s leadership will be healing-savvy, and the points in this article should help raiding healers enter into an intelligent discussion with even the most determined meter-maid of a raid leader.

In this article, I’m going to go over a few things that healing meters CAN and CANNOT reveal about your guild’s healers. I would never, for example, promote or dismiss a healer from my raiding corps based on meters alone. However, if I were evaluating a new healer, I would expect the different logs to be able to tell me a certain amount of things. At certain points, I’m going to be referring to the combat log parsers I’ve personally used, including WWS, WoW Meter Online, World of Logs, and of course, the ubiquitous Recount. Each of these programs displays the information differently, and some are more nuanced in their presentation than others.

What Meters Reveal

Who won the meter?
Did you win the meters last night? If you can answer this question, as a healer anyway, you don’t know how to read the meters. In the above screenshot from WoWMeter Online, it might look like Kaldora “beat” Mallet on the meters…until you notice that Mallet is a discipline priest and, as such, his primary ability doesn’t even show. Essentially, when you are looking at any combat log statistics in any form (even scrolling through the log itself), what you are doing is reconstructing the raid from perspectives other than your own. It’s a bit odd, like watching a home movie of yourself. Just like the camera’s lens, the log parser has a limited view of your actions. It collects statistics, and these tend to be fairly accurate, but you have to do the evaluation yourself. I read a combat log parse critically, and the following are the questions that the statistics can help me answer.

1. What were the healing assignments?
As a rule, tank healers place lower on the meter than raid healers. That’s just how it is–unlike dps, who can do infinite damage, a healer can only put out the numbers in response to damage. The more targets, the higher the ceiling. When I look at a breakdown for a particular fight, I can reconstruct the healing leader’s instructions to the raid pretty easily. The “Breakdown” section of WWS or “Who Healed Whom” section of WoWmeteronline will tell you for certain where people spent their time. However, for the most part I can reconstruct who did what just based on percentage of healing done and spell choice. When I have a new recruit in the raid, I use the meters to check if she’s been following instructions.

2. What is a player’s rotation?
If you’re a longtime healer, you might think that you don’t have a rotation. You just do what seems “natural,” right? Healing might seem like a mysterious force that arises out of the aether, but in fact, every healer has a rotation, either explicit or implicit. It only seems that there’s no rotation because you’re not mashing 1-2-3-3-3-3-3-4-4-4-4-4 like a Moonkin would (and let me tell you, the rare times Matticus lets me play laser chicken I need serious help from Squawk and Awe to get the 3’s and 4’s at the right time). Healer rotations are not necessarily set; rather, they are a series of if-then statements. If X kind of damage occurs, the healer casts spell Y. Some healers have a more explicit rotation than others. Druids are the most like dps in that our healing spells set up combos. 3X Lifebloom is a component of a rotation, as is a HoT setup for Nourish. And that 6-second cooldown for Wild Growth or Circle of Healing? That little piece of timing contributes to the development of a rotation for Resto Druids and Holy Priests. I don’t know about the rest of you, but whenever I’m raid healing, I’m watching my Wild Growth cooldown like a hawk. I know the number of casts I can perform before it’s up again. Every single class has something they do pre-emptively. For Healadins, it’s Bacon of Light and Holy Shield. For the Resto Shaman, it’s Riptide.

After long practice, these routines become automatic. The muscles are quite literally faster than the brain, and before you know it, you’ve hit Rejuv-Rejuv-Rejuv-Swiftmend-Wild Growth without once stopping to think about it. My favorite section of the log parsers are the spell breakdowns. On WoWMeterOnline, I particularly appreciate the pie chart of my abilities. I love the fact that I can compare two sets of statistics–the proportion of spells I actually cast (the pie), versus how much effective healing those spells accomplished (the column). This feature lets me amend my rotation. If I’m casting something too much and not getting enough effective healing out of it, I can alter that pattern. I can also compare my spell choice and cast ratios to other Druids. I’m never the best one out there, and I know it. If I think someone put in a stellar performance on a fight, I try to learn from it. If I see a Druid do particularly well in a fight using 15% Nourish, I’ll make a conscious effort to use it the next time.

The following image is the breakdown of my own abilities during a Mimiron fight. From this chart, you can reconstruct my rotation. It appears to be very heavy on Rejuv and Wild Growth, probably during the raid healing portions of the fight, with Lifebloom and Nourish used much less (probably mostly on tank targets in P1 and P4).
spell choice

Here is the WoWMeterOnline pie chart for a different Mimiron fight. Even pre-4pc bonus, I’m still getting more than my money’s worth for Rejuvenation. It accounted for 23% of my casts but did 38% of my healing. Nourish, on the other hand, is a relative loser, being a fairly large portion of my casts but a fairly small portion of my healing done. To some extent, this is just the nature of the two spells, but on this particular fight, HoTs are king. Rejuv doesn’t look nearly as good on a fight with less predictable AoE damage.
healing pie chart

3. Did something go terribly wrong?
If you’re accustomed to reading log parses for your guild, you can start to separate the wipes from the successes. Particularly if a wipe was blamed on healing failure, I urge you to go through the parse for that attempt. For this purpose, I find the death log and the Who Healed Whom? sections to be most useful. If you have a healer who repeatedly dies to the same (avoidable) boss ability, that information may help you improve your healing corps. I find, however, that most healing fails have less to do with healers standing in the fire than with healers deviating from their responsibilities. If you lost a tank on an attempt, go look at what your tank healers were doing. In particular, a little statistic called the Focus is helpful for this. If a tank healer has a high focus, that means they are healing randomly in the raid–i.e. diverting attention from their assigned tank. There are many reasons healers do this, but I’ll tell you, most of them have to do with a desire to look better on the meters. I’ve done it myself–looked away from the tank for one moment because I thought I could–and boy does it feel bad afterwards when that little innocent raid heal causes a wipe.

4. Which healer–allowing for class, spec, and assignment–contributed the most on a particular fight?
This is the moment where you really get to compare. You won’t necessarily be able to do this on every fight. Healing corps tend to shift about a bit, as healer turnover is always pretty high. However, on the occasions where you have two holy priests, you can compare them if and only if they were given the same assignment. If you are a healing lead, and you have a new recruit, try to assign them to the same thing as one of your veterans. This is most useful if you can pair them with the same class, but if that isn’t possible, try to match their role as closely as possible. You won’t get anywhere comparing the numbers of a Resto Shaman and a Resto Druid, even if you assign them both to heal the tank. However, if you assign your Resto Shaman to tank healing, you can compare his or her numbers to a Holy Paladin. It might not tell you much, but at least you can see which one kept a tighter focus on their tank or did more healing on that one target. If you do get the magical situation where you can compare raid-healing Resto Druid to raid-healing Resto Druid, you can actually pick a winner. Try to use your knowledge for good and not evil. If you have a new recruit who has some learning to do, encourage them to adopt spell choices more like your veteran. I do urge you to have several parses before you make your recruit change things. What the parses can’t do on their own is tell WHY one player “won” the meters.

5. How much of a role did heal-sniping play in a particular fight?
Ah, sniping. Whenever someone “loses” the meters and others make a big deal about it, there will be talk of sniping. The rather ugly word “sniping” indicates the practice of sneaking around on one’s healing assignment by spot healing other players. To some extent, sniping is something that can’t be avoided. If players are assigned to raid healing, those assignments have to be loose in order to let healers react to the actual damage that goes on in the fight. Even with mods, it’s sometimes hard to tell which raid members are about to receive a needed heal. As a healing leader, just understand how raid heal sniping works against certain classes. Circle of Healing and Wild Growth, due to their “smart” nature, can’t be kept to a neat assignment. These spells will “steal” some heals from your Resto Shamans. If you know that, you know to calm your shamans down when they’re worried. It’s just something that happens–so don’t demote your Shamans or overly praise your Druids. That’s just how the mechanics work together. Believe me, you need every competent healer you have–a raid is not a game of Survivor. If you want to minimize raid heal sniping, I suggest giving your healers proximity-based assignments. Our Mimiron strategy is a good example–we assign healers to quadrants, and as we’re spread out in a ring for P1, P2, and P4 of the fight, healers can’t reach across the room to snipe from their fellows. However, when you’re all clumped up, snipe happens.

Raid heal sniping tends not to affect the outcome of a fight, but the same cannot be said of sniping while tank healing. Sometimes tank healers need a little support. While a HoT or two from a raid healer on a tank is technically sniping, it’s usually helpful. After all, if the tank dies, you’re done, and extra insurance is not a bad thing. However, when your tank healers sneak heals onto the raid, it’s not always so helpful and it sometimes gets the tank killed. However, in some sense we are set up to do just this. I know that in particular, Holy Priests and Resto Druids can (and sometimes should) sneak a few Circles of Healing or Wild Growths on the raid while they’re tank healing. The trick is to have a realistic sense of how often you can turn away from your focus and for how long. I know the couple of times in my healing career I’ve caused a tank death because I’ve been sniping have been moments of intense shame and regret. If you have weird tank deaths in your raid, go check out healers’ focuses. That should tell you if sniping is the cause.

6. How do the healing classes differ from each other?
Whenever I look through a log parse, I’m struck by just how different the four healing classes are. I especially like to look at players’ spell choice. Some, like Holy Pallies, will show a lot of casts of the same thing, while others, like Holy Priests, will show a variety of abilities. This helps me reconstruct what healing was like in a particular raid. When you’re reading those meters, particularly a simple meter like Recount, you should know that “winning” those meters is linked to class and spec. If I’m looking at Recount, especially one that hasn’t been reset for a certain fight but rather has been running all night, I’m probably going to see either a Resto Druid or Holy Priest on top. That’s just what happens–it doesn’t mean too much. The meter is not a perfect measure. It sees a limited amount of information. It can’t tell you, for example, just how important your Pally’s tank heals were. All it can tell you was that he put out less raw healing than your raid healers. Even on the same assignment, your Resto Shamans, Holy Pallies (unless you have no Ret Pally and your Healadin gets to cast Judgment of Light), and Disc Priests will almost always be lower down. This is just how our spells work together, and it doesn’t make Pallies or Shamans bad. Also, if your raid is melee heavy, you might sometimes see the Ret Pally sneak up the meter with just Judgment of Light. However, this doesn’t mean that you should make your Holy Pally go Ret because Ret’s healing is “better.” Believe me when I say that Judgment of Light alone won’t heal your tank.

Why Do Some Players Place Higher than Others on the Meter?

Even when class, spec, and assignment are the same, players’ numbers will vary. Many people would claim that “skill” determines placement, but it’s only part of the truth. That sort of answer contradicts GC’s anecdote and gives healers a sense that they can’t improve, no matter what they do. However, there are usually resolvable issues that determine effective healing. It’s not all reaction time or “innate” gaming ability! As a 30-year old woman who didn’t grow up playing video games, I wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t possible to learn better healing techniques. However, I find myself on the top of the meters from time to time (and also…on the bottom). This wouldn’t happen if it weren’t possible to change my performance through effort.

As a healing lead, I’ve read a lot of meters. In my mind, the following are the most common reasons for meter differences between players.

1. Casting speed. By “casting speed,” I mean the rate at which the player queues up a new spell once the old one casts. This is the magic of reaction time. It’s hard to learn, but faster casting is supported by Quartz, readable raid frames, a faster machine, gear (especially haste), talents, and little things like a Tuskarr’s Vitality enchant to boots. It seems silly but yes, faster running almost always means more time to cast.
2. Talent choices. Sometimes there are many correct builds, but there is usually one best one for certain raid functions. The “best” build can depend on what the person’s role in your raid is. If your recruit will primarily be a raid healer, she might want to adapt her talents to reflect that.
3. Spell choice. What you cast is just as important as how often. There’s no “right” answer, but there are better and worse choices. A heavy use of Nourish with no HoT support is an example of a poor choice. To make intelligent choices, read your blogs and Elitist Jerks and try out different things in raids. If you’re a healing lead trying to diagnose problems, try to find an “ideal” spell cast ratio to suggest to the healer in question from a reliable source. Usually, finding an “expert” in the class to talk to is quickest and easiest. When in doubt, email a blogger! You might just get a whole post in response.
4. Gear, gear, GEAR. I can’t overemphasize what a difference equipment makes. Sure, there are prodigies of healing out there that can outheal me in their Naxx gear. Don’t expect your recruits to be among these magical beings. Amazing reaction time is rare, and it can make up for gear deficits. However, for the rest of us, properly maintained equipment with the right stats, the right gems, and the right enchants is one of the major things we rely on to put in a good performance.

Wrong Ways to Use the Meters

If you’re in charge of a guild or healing corps, please do not indulge in the following meter-related Healing Destructions.

1. Looking exclusively at total healing done for the whole night
I hate it when people post their Recount for a four hour raid. Every fight is different, and many players respec to different roles throughout the night. Moreover, assignments differ from fight to fight. If you’re number 1, try to restrain the need to pat yourself on the back. If you’re number 7, you don’t really need that box of tissues.

2. Looking exclusively at HPS
HPS graph

HPS varies wildly by class, assignment, and fight. After all, you need damage to happen before you can heal. Here is a World of Logs chart showing my guild’s healers’ HPS for a whole night. What useful thing can you glean from that? Um, overall HPS is higher when heroism is cast? Big surprise there. If you’re in charge, don’t make your healers paranoid about HPS. They’ll be afraid to CC during trash, and they’ll snipe more during bosses.

3. Comparing apples to oranges
If you’re going to pick “winners” on the meters, make sure you’re looking at the same thing. The values for class, spec, and assignment need to match. Also, be really careful if you’re comparing your guild’s parse to another guild’s. You don’t know how they do things or how good they are. Judging your healers by an arbitrary external standard isn’t necessarily meaningful. For an example of this type, before we killed Vezax, our raid leader was outraged at the healers because we needed Saronite Vapors to stay in mana. He was looking at a parse where almost no one in the raid took damage and where healers used no vapors. It took me about ten minutes of staring at the report of a “better” guild with “better” healers before I realized that all these (failed) attempts were tries at HARD MODE. You have to walk before you can run, people–comparing your guild to the “best” guilds in the world is the Path of Anguish. The reports reconstruct the raid, but they are at best a distorted mirror. If you’re going to look outside the guild for comparisons, try to find a guild that’s similar to yours that’s working on the same goals.

4. Hiring and firing based on the meters
Everyone wants something concrete to rely on when they have to make a tough decision. Just don’t succumb to this pressure. If you have a borderline healer, watch her DURING the raid. I sometimes keep new healers as my focus so I can see what they’re doing. Give your newbie tough assignments and see if people die. These things will be more meaningful than saying: “You’re number 6 on Recount, so you’re out.”

5. Encouraging meter-based competition among your healers
The more the leadership emphasizes meters, the more your healers will respond. No one wants to be voted off the island. Instead of becoming better players, your healers will start ignoring their assignments, sniping, and whining. You really do not want this. Your healers are supposed to be a team.

Conclusions

Yes, healing meters can be useful. If you have access to log parses, you can certainly learn from them. As an individual, you may be able to tweak your performance. However, naive uses of the healing meters can cause mischief and pain. Reading a meter intelligently is a difficult skill to learn, and if you’re in a position of power, it would be in the best interest of your guild if you interpreted the meters as thoughtfully as possible. There’s no magic stat that you can read to tell if someone is good or not.
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Is Tree Form Fun?

On Thursday Ghostcrawler put up a provocative new topic in the healing forms asking druids an open question–is tree form fun? Ever since I’ve been following the topic, and I must admit that I’m glued to my seat. I’ll post below my answer to GC’s query:

In all honesty, I love the druid healing style but hate tree form.

Tree form is a sacrifice I make so that I can play in the style I like.

Why?

1. The form is not aesthetically pleasing. The tree is unfeminine, un-treelike, and brown all over. In the blogosphere, we’re jokingly referred to as rotten broccoli. I love the grace and beauty of my elf. I originally healed on my character because resto druids could stay in elf form. I do have healers of other classes, but it is the playstyle, not the look, of my druid that makes her my main.

2. The limitations of tree form restrict certain types of behaviors in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. It makes me less likely to contribute dps in a raid when other healers would do so (XT’s heart).

3. The limitations are no longer verisimilar (realistic). I actually used to like the tree snare of 20%. I healed some fights in Tier 6 in form, some out. I shifted to move. I liked this mechanic, as it showed the “true” elf underneath the “false” tree skin. Now that the limitations are purely arbitrary, I don’t see their purpose.

I’d rather keep the elf form for healing–would it be possible just to glow green or something?

Otherwise, can the tree form be updated to something
1. customizable
2. anthropomorphic (dryad/nymph and centaur please)
3. gender-specific
4. horde-alliance specific
5. gear-progression revealing. This isn’t a big deal to me, but many players would like to display a weapon as moonkin do.

Thank you for including this topic. It raises my hopes–please don’t disappoint!

And now, for the blog, maybe I’ll explain a bit more what’s most important to me. In my opinion, which I recognize may differ from others, the art is the number 1 attraction of any game. I simply won’t play if the visuals don’t appeal to me. As far as druids are concerned, I like the concept of shape-shifting in its original form (cat and bear only when Syd was created), but I don’t like to be locked into shape-shifting. I also love being an elf.

Here are my suggestions to Blizzard for managing the overwhelming outcry for new, better-looking forms in this topic.

1. I would make the greatest number of people happy with the least work. Along with “display cloak” and “display helm,” let people click a box for “display form.” This is a solution that costs little, allows for customization, and doesn’t require an artist.
2. If Blizzard is determined that all druids must display a form, start actually working on them. I know that art is costly and time-consuming. I also know that artistic projects can actually be finished–if they are being worked on. Even though Blue posters say that druid forms are “in the works,” they have been at that state for years. Pardon me if I don’t believe them. I think it’s a shame, because any budget spent on player character art will be directly appreciated by the player-base. It is a better investment than designing a great T8 shoulder. When it’s the character itself, something that we look at all the time, the artwork really shows itself to best (or worst) advantage.

I’m not saying that I’ll reroll a priest right now just to get to see my elf form while I raid, but it’s definitely something I might work on for the next expansion, especially if we get some raiding down-time. I do love the druid playstyle though–it’s just that it requires me to be uglier than anyone else in raid.

Also, did I ever tell you guys about the time I failed the Thaddius ledge boss? Yep, I thought the tree druid in front of me was me. There can, in fact, be PvE advantages to customization.

What’s my ideal “tree” form? Well, I think I’d just use the priest’s shadowform and turn it green and sparkly. Either that, or let’s scrap the tree, I want to be one of the gorgeous new girl centaurs they introduced with Wrath–naturally, with a customizable hair style and color.

Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part 2: Getting Started

Syd’s Guide to Blogging Part 2: Getting Started

As I tell my students, Dame Inspiration is a fickle mistress. One of the hardest challenges any writer faces is knowing what to write about and then having the gumption to go through with it. Let me tell you, I face my own struggle with writer’s block every day. Sure, it doesn’t hurt me much in the blogging department, but in my professional life? My own anxiety about the quality of my writing keeps me from publishing as many articles as I’d like. As such, I’m writing this blog entry to coax both my readers and myself into happy, healthy writing habits.

My theory on creativity is that almost all writers or would be writers have a mountain of content locked somewhere in the furthest corner of their brain, just waiting to be set free. I know I’ve spent countless hours over the last year explaining to people (and myself) the entire plot of a vampire series I intend to write. . . someday. I’ve developed it enough in my mind to have first and last names for all the characters, an opening paragraph that I’ve now memorized, a good number of chapter titles, and a plan for every major scene in books one and two. I even dream about the heroine on a surprising number of occasions. Did I mention that the actual writing on this project comes to a sum of two pages? Why is that, do you think? I have absolutely nothing to lose by writing my thoughts down, right? Well, that’s not entirely true.

The Lure of the Possible

Four years ago, at the beginning of writing my dissertation, I took a seminar on how to begin. Yes, I’m the type of person who takes a class every time I need to know how to do something–I can’t help it, I suffer from academophilia. In that particular class, I learned something startling. Most cases of writer’s block are not caused by a lack of material or a lack of interest on the part of the writer. They are the result of fear and anxiety. One would think that a writer would feel better the moment that words finally hit the page–but it’s just the opposite. You see, any time I’ve actually written something down, I have to deal with my actual, real blog entry or short story, not the ideal one that I might have written under the most favorable of conditions. The truth is that the ideal is always better–it is a dream, a thing of cobwebs and shadow, to which the real cannot possibly compare. The major insight of this seminar was that writers actually feel more unhappy, not less, once their work has been started. How does one overcome the anxiety? I’ll tell you what I tell myself, and what I tell my students. It must have worked to some degree, because I actually did finish my dissertation on schedule. Recognize that first drafts are always bad. That is their purpose in life–to be utter, total crap that you can then toy with, rearrange, dismember and, if necessary, discard as you revise. I am sure there are some writers who publish their first drafts, but it takes a great deal of experience and expertise (and probably a mountain of past failed drafts) to get to that point.

For those writers who would like to get from the possible to the actual, the following strategies can help you come to see writing as a process, mostly mechanical, that has a lot more to do with hard work than inspiration.

Control Your Environment

The second thing that prevents many writers from producing as much as they like has to do with the environment they work in–and by this, I mean both mental and the physical space. Ideally, we’d all like to write in a perfectly beautiful, solitary space, carried on to verbosity on a wave of euphoric inspiration. That doesn’t happen. Writers who seek that out every time end up as hermits or drug addicts–or worse, both. Some of us can, like writer Annie Dillard, build a writing studio in the back yard to escape the world. I’m sure this is quite effective, but writers starting out won’t generally have the capability to set themselves up as modern-day Thoreaus (or worse, modern-day Van Goghs, permanently high on absinthe and turpentine). Instead of lamenting your lack of a rustic, solitary cabin with an excellent internet connection, work on the environmental factors that you can change. Believe me when I tell you that college students with their myriad distractions can write brilliant papers–but most of them can’t do so in a dorm room while their drunk roommate plays Xbox. I suggest the following steps to improve your writing environment. Physical space, after all, helps create mental space.

1. Find out what level of noise and companionship you like. As an experiment, take your notebook or laptop to a fairly busy cafe. There should be noise all around you–the hum of conversation, the clink of spoons against glass, the high pitched squeal of the espresso machine–but none of it is directed at you specifically. Now, set yourself a very simple writing challenge. Write a long, involved email or letter to a friend explaining everything you’ve been doing for the last two weeks. As you know, every one of us is behind on our correspondence, so this will be a useful exercise. Note the time when you start and when you finish, and after you sign off, write down a few words about the difficulty of the exercise. Did you write a good letter? Were you often distracted? And if you were, did those distractions help you think, or did they chase the thoughts out of your head?

When you’ve completed your public writing exercise, it’s time to indulge in some private writing. Set an alarm for an hour early–preferably at a time when no one will be awake. Write in a room empty of clutter, noises, interest of any kind. If you’re a student, I suggest a study room at the library on Saturday morning. If you’re at home, write barefoot and in your pajamas–with or without a coffee cup. Now, write a letter or email of the same length and detail as the public one, and time yourself. When you finish, reflect on the experience and note whether it seemed easier or harder, more or less pleasant, than your exercise in public writing.

The results of this little experiment should give you a baseline reading on how you best like to write. I chose personal correspondence as the assignment because it’s a type of writing that causes little anxiety for anyone. After all, our friends love to hear from us, and they couldn’t care less if we use metaphors or not. The only factors causing possible anxiety should have been environmental. What did I learn from doing this exercise myself? That both types of locales have their advantages. For me, I’m faster at home, but I’m more likely to work on what I’m supposed to be doing in public. Experience tells me that while I’ll abandon my writing for lolcats after five minutes if I’m sitting barefoot at my breakfast table, I won’t do the same at Starbucks. I choose my different environments based on my goals for the day and how motivated I feel. If I’m less motivated and I need to write anyway, it’s off to the coffee shop. I find that I don’t hear the distractions after a while–it’s white noise to me, below the threshold of notice. But the mere fact of being in a public place keeps my butt in the seat and my hands on the keys more consistently. However, I’ve got to confess that I mostly blog at home in my pajamas. Why? Blogging, for some reason, doesn’t hit my anxiety buttons like literary criticism or novel writing do. I think it’s the informal, personal nature of the medium.

Have a Writing Ritual

The horrible affliction of writer’s block has a great deal in common with insomnia. In both cases, the mind and body are out of sync, and we just can’t manage to do the thing that we most need or want to do. Thus, it makes sense that the advise that helped me overcome my own insomnia also worked on my poor writing habits. Once you find something that works, keep certain elements the same every time. Here’s what you might do.
1. Write at the same time every day. The more writing becomes a part of your routine, the easier it will be to make yourself do it. It’s not a terrible bother to brush your teeth every morning, is it?
2. Go to your regular writing spot(s). It’s time to put the knowledge you gained from our earlier exercise into practice. If you have an office or a rustic cabin, this is quite easy. If you’re a laptop user like me with no actual desk, you’ll have to get creative. I have three spaces that I work in: my office at work (suitable for research and reading), the leftmost cushion on the couch (suitable for heavy writing), and the Barnes and Noble cafe (suitable for reading and taking notes). I have a feeling though, that if I really wanted to write that vampire novel, I’d take the laptop to Barnes and Noble. For writing with secondary sources, I’m stuck with the couch, because no one wants to drag an enormous bag of books to the bookstore (from, of course, is another story entirely.
3. Have the same drinks and snacks every time. For me, it’s coffee or diet coke. I don’t eat while I write on the computer, as my last laptop got irremediably sticky. If you do get the munchies, I suggest popcorn, edamame, apples, or carrots. Cheetos are a really, really bad idea. Granola bars are also surprisingly crumbly. It’s not that you need a drink or snacks, of course. It’s just that, as it becomes part of your routine, your favorite coffee cup will help you write. I, for example, love plain white cafe-style mugs. All my mugs from home look like they could have come from a cafe (and now it really irks me when cafes use oversize or glass mugs). Even seeing a white coffee mug makes me think of reading and writing–which is a very helpful association if you’re trying to get some words down. Caveat–as I write with a coffee mug on my lap desk next to my laptop, or in the best case scenario, precariously balanced beside me on the couch, I’m sure I’m headed for tragedy and nasty laptop death one day. Perhaps at some point I’ll buy a couch with a built-in cup holder.

Practice Pre-Writing and Post-Writing

I would not expect even the best novelist to produce her best sentence in the first fifteen seconds of a writing session. You have to work yourself into it. For pre-writing, I suggest that you keep a separate notebook or document purely for your feelings and anxiety about the writing process. I used this technique for my dissertation, and I can tell you, my pre-writing scrapbook is full of every curse word I know and dire proclamations written in all caps. Somehow, a few minutes of writing anything will reconcile me to doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
Post-writing is equally important. The idea is to leave yourself a plan for the next day’s work. Human beings write better in coherent chunks. If you can, it’s always ideal to write a whole blog entry or a whole chapter at one setting, but with lengthier projects, this just isn’t possible. For post-writing, I use my primary document. I append post-writing comments directly to the day’s work, and for me, it’s usually a one-to ten-step plan of what I need to accomplish in the next session. I know from experience that my maximum production in one sitting is somewhere around 4 pages double-spaced. This isn’t very much compared to the overall length of a dissertation (300 pages double-spaced) or a fantasy novel (up to 700 pages double-spaced). Like Hansel and Gretel, you have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you. Now, sometimes I don’t follow the path I’ve laid for myself. Writing is a process of continual discovery, and when it takes a left turn, I like to follow it to its logical end. However, it’s comforting to have a to-do list. If I don’t accomplish a step in the plan, I save it until I do. At the end of chapter three of my dissertation I had five pages of excellent plans that just never came to fruition. I only deleted them when I was certain that I was done adding new material to the chapter.

Time to Write, Right Now

The techniques I’ve described have helped me tremendously. Even though I’m a “professional writer,” (it still feels odd to call myself that, though it’s in my job description) I still need them. I still wrestle with the angel every time I sit down to write–especially if my job is on the line. I urge all aspiring or current writers to see inspiration, and writing itself, as a mechanical process that obeys certain rules. If you put work in, you get results out. That work does not have to be brilliant–it just has to be present. A great second draft, after all, can be written from any sort of first draft, even the worst one possible. However, a great second draft cannot be produced with no first draft at all to support it. So, open up your word processor–today–and see what happens.
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