Given that patch 8.3 for World of Warcraft: Battle For Azeroth has been out for over a month now, it seems like a good time to revisit the cornerstone feature of the patch – Horrific Visions.
I’ve written a lot about HVs, from PTR through to now, and there are some simple reasons for that – I deeply enjoy the gameplay within Horrific Visions, I find them an interesting design exercise and thought experiment for future MMO content, and, in a similar vein to that last point, they are quite literally a pseudo-testing ground for the future of WoW. Shadowlands, the upcoming expansion, has Torghast, the tower of the damned, as a key feature, and while HVs are different in many ways (predetermined over random maps, fixed bosses, predictable gameplay with minor variations) they are also clearly a bit of gameplay analysis prior to implementing a more fleshed-out Torghast with solid details to its gameplay.
I’m revisiting the topic now because I think I can speak more intelligently about them now (I’ve done 5 chest solo runs in both instances, I’ve done a full mask run of SW and a partial mask run in Orgrimmar, I’ve run them on multiple alts of varying roles and specs, and I’ve run them mostly solo, but on alts, in groups as well) and because with Shadowlands alpha likely getting close (god, I hope so editing update – encrypted files have been seen in the wild!) it seems like a good time to break down what works, what doesn’t, and use that to discuss the ideal state for Torghast.
Last bit of preamble – I’m probably still going to talk about HVs in an overly glowing fashion. Truth be told, I haven’t been terribly happy with BfA at all and so anything that makes me want to play pulls me in strongly and gets all of the pent-up excitement that I want to have about the game but haven’t had an outlet for. So I understand going in that I have a bias towards these and while I am definitely making an effort to be cognizant of that and keep it in check, I do really enjoy HVs!
Coalescing Visions: The thing that I liked about the Mage Tower is doing your normal story content on Broken Shore got you enough Nethershards for a ton of attempts – provided that was all you were using them for. If you were trying to buy Relinquished gear tokens in 7.2, on the other hand, this was a bit of a challenge, but it was never particularly hard to get a ton of Nethershards and most times, a minimum of Broken Shore/Legion Invasion play got my alts enough to do dozens of attempts at the Mage Tower. Coalescing Visions, on the other hand, are a bit more scarce (judging by number of entries to the HVs, rather than raw number, because CVs drop way more!) and tend to be a barrier to entry. As the weeks have ground on, the dailies are often more necessary to gain extra attempts at the HVs, which means more time doing world content. The world content isn’t always bad, mind you – but some quests like rare farming are tedious and can feel bad. Either way, it’s like being forced to eat your veggies before your entree – I don’t hate broccoli, mind you, but I also don’t look forward to it the same way as the rest of the meal. That alone wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for…
Excessive Timegating: HVs have the cleanest, most undisputable example of what I think most people envision is bad about WoW timegating. In order to enter an HV, you need a Vessel. To get a Vessel, you need to do a Black Empire assault, or save up 10,000 coalescing visions. To get 10,000 CVs, you need to do minor assaults (worth 5,500), minor visions (worth 3,000 the first time each week, then 1,500 per day after), and daily quests in the two Black Empire tainted zones (250 a pop, up to 7 quests a day). If you just do assaults and minor visions, you’ll get 3 vessels a week with relative ease. If you do your dailies, you can get more (an extra 1 per week, on average), meaning you can get 4 Vessels a week, with some spare-change CVs waiting around which levels out to an extra vessel every 3 weeks on average. Okay, so this isn’t so bad – you put in around an hour or 90 minutes a day, and every week you’ll net 33,500 CVs and 1 full vessel on top of that. Fine.
However, this means you play…every day. On the plus side, it gives you a reason to log in every day if you really enjoy HVs! On the downside, it often begins to feel like chores, and a certain dreadful tedium sets in. But we’re not done with timegating yet!
On top of what I just mentioned, you cannot really stockpile CVs or Vessels, because both have hard caps in place – 5 Vessels and, oddly, 25,000 CVs at max. If you want to hold off on doing HVs on an alt, but want to be able to sprint through a dozen or so attempts at once, you simply can’t. You’re capped at holding 7.5 attempts worth of total currency, and if you try doing content to earn more, you lose what you earned since the game won’t give it to you. Vessels, disappearing into ether. Coalescing Visions, failing to coalesce into reality. But surely, this isn’t so bad – what I’ve named here is an edge case!
Yes, but then there is ANOTHER layer of timegate, this one slightly less frustrating but equally present and annoying. The main gameplay reward of HVs is leveling up your legendary cloak, taking it up in item level, but most importantly, increasing the sanity resistance it offers in the HVs and increasing your Corruption resistance, allowing you to wear more powerful corrupted gear and higher total levels of corruption without getting yourself killed. In order to keep us from no-lifing it, Blizzard has limited the rank grind on a weekly basis, such that you can only rank up the cape once a week if you are keeping up with the game at present. The patch has been out roughly 6 weeks and if you have kept pace, your cape is at best rank 10 (rank 11 this week!). This isn’t a long-standing problem, though – the rank limit is global, meaning an alt starting today could sprint through 1-11 and quickly get up to speed – except that you can do at most 5 visions in week 1 (the story quests give you some vessels to get you moving quickly), and then are limited to a maximum of 4 attempts in subsequent weeks. By the time you reach rank 8 and try to go to 9 and beyond, however, you now need multiple runs to get the quest items needed. You can no longer complete the upgrade quests in a single HV, and even if you are skilled enough to get 4 chests from corrupted and lost zones (the chests that spawn the mid-rank quest items), the game caps the number you can get per run at 2.
So, in order to do HVs, you need to play world content, to farm CVs to buy Vessels, to use to play HVs, to get items to upgrade your cloak, but you can only carry so many vessels, so many CVs, and can only get so many quest rewards per HV, regardless of how well you play, limiting your progress and requiring more attempts even if you do exceptionally well, and if you try to stockpile to run the HV on repeat, you can, at absolute best, do it 7 times. Even if I felt like this was a decent limit (spoiler alert – I don’t) it is unnecessarily complicated, such that it took me 4 paragraphs to describe it. Yikes.
Solo Balance: My experiences on my Havoc Demon Hunter through HVs are an absolute thrill. I’m raid geared, a powerful spec with strong burst AoE and solid single-target DPS, and extremely mobile. Awesome. My Windwalker Monk does okay, not quite as powerful, but also not my raid main, so gear is a little behind and relative level of skill is lower. Works out okay. My Beast Mastery Hunter does amazingly – a simple, high DPS spec with multiple mobility abilities, the ability to turn a pet tanky to handle taking the brunt of the blows, and the ability to do a ton of damage at range.
My Discipline Priest, though? Dreadful. Even with the massive healer-spec nerf to the Horrific Visions, soloing one on my priest requires far more planning and forethought than anything else I play. Is it still doable? Sure, but the lack of balance between specs feels far more noticeable, and that wouldn’t be bad were it not for the fact that there is an achievement for going all the way through a max-difficulty HV solo. For me, that’s something I’m going to do on my DH, and maybe my Hunter, but not on many other characters. In an older era before account-wide achievements and rewards, this would have absolutely sucked. In the current era, for those with OP alts, it is better, but still sucks and is certainly not ideal.
Tug of War Between Upgrade Quests for Cloak and Titanic Research: This one is more personal to me, and also temporary, but one problem I find myself running into is that I often want to play Horrific Visions, but doing so without an active quest to upgrade the cloak feels like a bit of a waste. It isn’t necessarily the case, because I have made a handful of runs solely to push and farm as many Corruption Mementos as possible to purchase Titanic Research upgrades, but those runs can feel a bit wasteful knowing that in cases like recent weeks, it does often mean scrambling to farm more coalescing visions for vessels, or showing up to raid without an upgraded cloak (a minor issue since the cloak effects don’t really make a difference in raid, but still!), while at the same time feeling necessary – the later Titanic Research talents are potent in the visions and will grant you a ton of ability to push through. Gift of the Titans is a powerful talent when pushing using the Mask of the Long Night. Being able to restore 200 sanity on elite kills means a lot of extra sanity, which allows you to push through more content with less deployment of orbs. Having the bonus sanity trait when playing in a group can add up tremendously. You get the idea – the game’s pacing of upgrades means you are going to be tempted to use additional non-cloak upgrade runs to push as many Corruption Mementos as you can, because they grant you the power you need in the HVs to push through the harder subzones and mask runs.
Based on all of this, I have concerns as it applies forward to Torghast.
Lack of Clarity on Frequency of Runs: The discussion at Blizzcon 2019 that sticks out to me about Torghast is that Blizzard does not want them to be highly farmable, but hadn’t settled on a weekly lockout or another mechanism. My foremost fear for Torghast is that it gets a similar system to HVs – layers of ambiguous currencies and purchases, weird uneven caps, and the feeling of chores required to gain access. For me, Torghast needs to be repeatable with some frequency, even if I can’t do it every day or a dozen times a week. If my goal was to design it to be repeatable on a predictable cadence for rewards, I’d do one of two things – put it on a smaller period lockout akin to the old 20 player raid lockouts of Classic (3 days a lockout or something similar) or give each player a flat number of weekly tries, and maybe covenant progression increases the tries. That way you have a solid plan – you know players have x number of weekly tries, or can play it once every x days, so you can design it for that in terms of rewards, layout recycles, and affixes (if they apply).
Progression Mechanics in Torghast: Outside of the layered timegating, I actually really enjoy the progression system in use with HVs. The Titanic Research Archives give you what amounts to HV-specific talents, with early choices mattering and by the end, a full tree. They let you specialize early on for solo or group play, and then later let you pick if you prefer to move faster and benefit from haste, or to do more damage and take less damage. These are minor branches in the tree, but the design is really enjoyable and goes a long way towards making the system feel rewarding and creating a layer of difficulty reduction for the HVs.
In fact, the thing I would argue HVs do best is soft-nerfing themselves over time. When you first try one, at a lower item level and with no talents and a base level cloak, it kind of sucks. It’s not impossible, and most will likely clear to the first boss with a minimum of trouble, but it presents a challenge. As you complete cloak upgrades, farm Corrupted Mementos, upgrade your gear, and gain familiarity with the mechanics of the Visions, you can push deeper, at which point increased Sanity drain and more complicated enemy mechanics and Madnesses begin to reinstate challenge to the scenario. By the time you are pushing a 5-chest run, you probably feel pretty good and solid, but also precarious – wrong decisions are punished and particularly bad decisions can result in death and the end of a run.
But hey – once you can 5-chest, you probably have the strategies down, and short of a bad madness combo (being melee and having Leaden Foot in the Lost zones), you have a cadence down. But then, you complete that 5-chest run, and the first thing the game does is hand you a Mask – probably the worst mask, the one that halves your Sanity bar. The encouragement now is to push through the whole scenario with a mask on – no partial reward upgrades anymore. Of course, the first mask it gives you is awful for this early on, but the secret is that you aren’t actually expected to immediately 5-chest with the Mask of the Longest Night. No, instead, you wear it, complete a corrupted or lost wing, and then receive new masks, which are much easier to manage.
Last night, I used my second unlocked mask, the Mask of the Burned Bridge, and completed a 5 chest run. It requires an additional degree of planning and forethought – especially as a solo melee player – but it is quite manageable if you’ve made it to the point where you even have masks, which itself is a preparation mechanic – you individually won’t unlock a mask until you can clear the full scenario, so there is a clear progression path through the content. Learn and complete each wing, do your cloak upgrades and Titanic Research, push to full clears, and only then does the game offer a twist.
Torghast needs a similar system, because it allows an elegant, self-selecting scaling where you as a player can influence your destiny and pick what is doable to you. I won’t likely try a full run with Mask of the Longest Night until my cloak is near maxed out, but you might think the halved sanity is easier than Burned Bridge, which I gladly used for my first full-clear with a mask. If Torghast has these knobs and levers for fine-tuning your difficulty, it will be very good indeed!
Scaling, Flexible Gameplay: While it is not perfect, I really hope Torghast retains the flexibility we see in HVs. Being able to solo or queue with any number of players between 2-5 is awesome. Being able to select multiple paths and carve your own way is awesome. Having a ton of choices to make about what to pull, when to pull, and how to time the use of various mechanics is awesome. The core concept at the heart of HVs and Torghast is a stunningly good evolution of the gameplay model in WoW, one that offers the broadest appeal. It is solo content, but not face-rollingly easy. It is group content, but only if you want it to be. You can play in a trinity group defined by roles, or take 5 DPS in and straight-up annihilate everything. There are layers of discovery – how to get masks, the vial system, the odd crystals that I’m still not sure how to use or what they do. Everything about the HVs begs to be explored, repeatedly and in new and different ways.
Overall, my opinion of HVs has only improved as time has gone on, and while my opinion of the entry mechanics and their gating has gotten worse, overall, it isn’t quite enough to damper my joy at them. Horrific Visions have made BfA something I enjoy outside of raiding, and that is an achievement in its own right.
If Torghast fixes the gating while delivering the fun core of the concept, it will only speak well of Shadowlands and the expansion’s prospects among the playerbase.