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Scattered Shots: Understanding the PTR process

Brian Wood

Every Monday and Thursday, WoW Insider brings you Scattered Shots for beast mastery, marksmanship and survival hunters. Frostheim of Warcraft Hunters Union uses logic and science (mixed with a few mugs of dwarven stout) to look deep into the hunter class. Mail your hunter questions to Frostheim.

The patch 4.0.6 PTR process has been a volatile one for us hunters. We went from gentle nerfs and buffs to OMG HORROR nerfs and WHEE BUFFAGE buffs, then had those scaled back a bit. And I have to tell you, I don't think the ride is over yet.

Any time Blizzard announces changes, there's always a very reactionary response, and I suppose that's just part of the game. But lately I've been getting more and more emails and comments from hunters complaining about how the PTR is run or clearly not understanding the purpose of the PTR.

Why does Blizzard release clearly buggy abilities? How can the designers not see that this is OP/useless now? Don't they even play the game? Well, I'm going to suggest that these are not problems with the PTR or the designers but instead a problem with expectations. Join me after the cut for some clarity on the PTR process and why hunters have had such a crazy ride recently.

WoW is a constantly changing game

The first thing we have to understand is that WoW is a constantly changing and evolving game. Unlike, say, chess or Carcassone, an MMO is an incredibly complex set of interacting mechanics. The comparative value of those mechanics, the game balance, changes based not just on everyone's abilities but also on the kind of content that's currently available.

You'll note that no MMO is ever "done" or somehow balanced perfectly, even within any given expansion. Each expansion in WoW lasts about two years, and for the entire duration of that time, tweaks and changes are continuously being made.

The thing to understand here is that if something in the game is not balanced ideally, Blizzard can just change it in the next patch or hotfix it. This is an important concept for how the PTR works, and we'll be coming back to it.

Of designers and coders

Another thing to keep in mind before we start talking about the PTR itself is that the designers, the guys who are responsible for class balance and new abilities and raids, are not the guys doing the actual programming. While they can easily go in and tweak some changes, other changes are very complex and require the programmers to go in and overhaul the code.

There's no telling which is which -- sometimes the simplest seeming changes are the most complicated to implement. And just because something works one way in one place doesn't mean that the current code supports the same functionality in another place. Code is complicated and fickle.

When changes are considered, the design team gets together to discuss them. There are about 10 or so designers handling all our class changes, and all of them pay attention to all of the classes. There is not a designer for each class -- a hunter designer, a warlock designer, etc. There are just a bunch of designers doing it all together, so they have a better understanding of the big picture, how the change to one class could have repercussions to other classes.

Certainly there might be one designer who plays a priest as his main, and the guys are going to give his analysis more weight since he might know that class a bit better, but they all are familiar with all the classes. So they discuss what they think needs to be done and generally make their decisions by consensus, rather than voting or the big GC stepping in and saying how it will be. When a change goes through, it's usually because the design team as a whole agreed that it was needed, or at least worth testing out.

Now that they've made those decisions, all those changes have to get passed along to be actually implemented in the next PTR build. So there's a delay between making the decision and when the decision actually goes out on the PTR. Oh, yeah, and someone has to write them up for the patch notes.

Decision and implementation delay

Another thing to understand is that Blizzard wants to get things on the PTR as quickly as possible. The longer it's up on the PTR, the more testing is going to get done and the more likely Blizzard is to discover some of those pesky, hard-to-pin down bugs.

If the designers decide to make, say, 361 changes in a patch, they might go ahead and put the PTR live when only 283 of those changes have been implemented. For hunters, we saw the slight SV agility nerf and some gentle MM and BM buffs when the PTR patch notes were first released. Then a couple of days later, we saw more SV nerfs and more BM and MM buffs. It's entirely possible that these were all decisions made from the get-go, but it just took a bit longer for some of them to get implemented.

Likewise, there's this mysterious haste code change that we keep hearing about. It made it into the patch notes but wasn't actually implemented on the server. The code guys are apparently still working on it.

Now this isn't to say that everything that happens on the PTR was planned from the beginning. After all, we saw the 25% Explosive Shot nerf and the Serpent Spread nerf reduced or reverted in a later update. That was clearly a reaction to the massive hunter outcry. Alas, we have no way to know which changes are in response to us, the players, which ones are in response to PTR data that Blizzard is seeing, and which ones were planned from the beginning.

Why don't they just wait until it's all done?

A fairly common complaint that I get is, "Why doesn't Blizzard just wait until all the changes are done and working before they put up the PTR?" This is where we get back to the very first concept we discussed: WoW is a living, constantly changing game.

If Blizzard waited until everything for a patch was complete and working ... then that would be the patch. Not the PTR. Since the game is constantly changing anyway, if it turned out that something was unbalanced or exploitable, it could then just fix it in the next patch or hotfix.

So the PTR, by design, exists in this "in progress" period before everything is done.

It's good for Blizzard because the designers get more eyes on the proposed changes and more bodies testing and finding bugs. And because the PTR exists during this "in progress" phase, it doesn't delay the patch from actually going live. It's good for us because we have a chance to voice our opinions before the changes go live in the game, and sometimes our feedback changes design decisions (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse).

What does this all mean?

Well, other than the fact that it's interesting to see how Blizzard works, I hope that this helps informs how to respond to PTR changes a bit.

Since Blizzard is only telling us the changes that are implemented on the PTR and don't tell us what is coming to the PTR a few days from now (and for good reason -- maybe the designers'll change their minds about those coming changes), we can only respond to the changes that we see.

However, because we know that what we're seeing isn't the whole picture, we can give feedback in a more reasoned way. If we think a change is bad, we can calmly explain why we think it's bad, rather than reverting to hyperbole and name-calling and threatening to quit playing because our class is unplayable if we're in the middle of the pack. Keep in mind that the nerf that we're seeing may well have been planned because of a buff that just hasn't been implemented yet.

It's easy to fixate on one thing that sucks -- Explosive Shot being nerfed -- and lose sight of the big picture. And of course, the big picture is that hunters are awesome and continually becoming awesomer.

Scattered Shots is dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter in Cataclysm. From leveling your hunter to optimizing for heroics to gearing up with pre-heroic loot and pre-raid loot, we've got you covered.

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