XP-Off Exploiting: A Missed Opportunity
One of my favorite WoW bloggers posted a dishearteningly accurate article about the ongoing impact of the XP-off battleground exploit. I avoided talking about the exploit’s impact for several reasons, and Cynwise explained the situation far more simply and eloquently than I could have. With that, I want to focus on the 10-14 bracket which I consider the greatest missed twinking opportunity of Cataclysm. From there, we will see that 10s reveal some critical issues about World of Warcraft as a whole.
A lot of XP-off players lost out on games when the no-XP patch landed. 10s got spared to some degree, up until Blizzard split the 10-19 bracket in half. In some ways that was even worse for 10s. They were the only twinks in the history of twinking who could thrive at the bottom level of their bracket, before the bracket split and before capped accounts got moved to XP-off battlegrounds. 10s used to get a lot of hate for the massive amount of resilience that made them nigh-unkillable. Blizzard fixed that issue when they added level requirements to chest enchantments.
Then Cataclysm arrived, and cross-battlegroup battlegrounds opened up tremendous new opportunities for the 10-14 bracket.
If players criticize 19s for being a 3-button bracket, you can imagine the jokes made about playing 10s. But as any decent lower-bracket player will tell you, the actual number of options sits much higher than that. In addition, each option brings more impact, precisely because they’re the only options you have. A critical bandage, well-used racial, or precisely-timed root can make a serious difference on the field. Thanks to Blizzard’s changes over the last couple of years, 10s have as many options now as 19s used to have in TBC.
And it gets better. Playing at 10, 11, 12, or 14 offers serious options for many classes and specs. Secondary stats work by far the best at 10, except for crit, for which you can justify going to 11. Some significant class abilities appear at 12 and 14. Most BiS gear comes from BoA pieces, but some agonizingly great gear choices appear at all levels. Casters can argue for pages about 22 int vs. 30 spell power vs. the 20 haste from the iron counterweight. No mounts in battlegrounds raises the stakes for group tactics, augmented by the absence of shaman ghost wolf and druid travel form.
Put together, Cataclysm gave the 10-14 bracket the opportunity to show the best of what twinking had to offer: a depth of knowledge about World of Warcraft stats and mechanics, a fantastic high stakes team play environment, and a steep skill curve that demanded better field awareness and timing. Getting any bracket off the ground takes considerable organization and effort, and 10s achieved varying levels of one-time success. However, a combination of cultural differences and an opportunity from an unusual exploit ultimately ended any chance for the 10-14 XP-off bracket.
Players twink for different reasons, and often don’t agree about those reasons. At the top of the list rages the argument between those who want higher quality games, and players who want to be battlefield heroes to obliterate the competition. But the argument isn’t that simple. We harbor varying levels of resentment toward longer queues, and toward tremendous up-front investment of time and effort to get a bracket off the ground. Let’s face it: if you don’t play in 19s, 20-24s, 70s, or 80s, getting games takes a lot of work and maintenance, which goes way beyond what most players want to do.
If you have to work hard for games that may or may not be any fun, why not just use the XP-off exploit and make your own fun any time you want to, in XP-on brackets?
Some players will immediately dismiss the question. After all, why would you want to farm scrubs? The answer lies in the 20-24 bracket: many players prefer to get games, and find ways to have fun regardless of how imbalanced games may run. Say what you will about the lack of fun and integrity in using the XP-off exploit to get into XP-on games, the fact remains that launching an XP-off bracket takes a lot of ongoing work. WoW is a game. If it takes that much work to have fun, something’s wrong. To be clear, I’m not condoning the use of the XP-off exploit. I’m simply saying I understand why some people choose to play that way. It saddens me because the brackets that are best known for fielding XP-off exploiters had the most potential in Cataclysm.
When twinks exploit to get into XP-on games, they miss out on the innovations that move a bracket ahead. With gear that far outclasses competitors (including so-called BoA twinks), the push for more intense games disappears. They become casual players, because the only intensity they find comes in bursts — discovering opponents who exploited just like they did, or treating PvP like PvE i.e. how many scrubs can you pull and manage at once.
Pop quiz: What is the significance of 2:3:4:5:6? Every dedicated 10-14 player should instantly know the answer, because it holds the key to making all gear and level choices for every class and spec in the bracket. But most 10-14 players won’t have a clue, and that’s a damn shame. Often, players twink at 10 without really knowing why, or choose another level without considering the true implications for doing so. (2:3:4:5:6 is the general ratio of secondary stats at levels 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 i.e. it takes 8 crit at level 12 to equal 4 crit at level 10).
Cataclysm gave 10s the opportunity to prove their skills and creativity, representing twinking at its finest. 10s could have demonstrated tremendous nuance of knowledge, skill, and battlefield prowess. Instead, most players in the 10-14 bracket threw away the opportunity and embodied the criticisms they had long endured. Many of us could easily dismiss XP-off exploiters as riffraff who simply embody the worst of twinking’s reputation. We could denounce the rampant self-entitlement it takes to ruin XP-on battlegrounds. And we would miss the point. Consider that even if Blizzard put a long cooldown on the ability to turn XP off or on, the cooldown would not encourage exploiters to work on developing games in XP-off. The issue is about access to games. Changing brackets is not a reasonable option — each one plays differently. Telling a 10 to go play a 19 is like telling a 69 to go play at 70. Even one level fundamentally changes how a bracket plays. Again, that misses the point.
The point is, we can talk all we want about how XP-off players shouldn’t be in XP-on games, but the real issue is this: why doesn’t World of Warcraft take the opportunity to help all players, XP-on and XP-off, get more games? Why do we still have to rely on volunteer efforts via external websites to show how many people are queued up at a given time for a given bracket? After all these years, why do BG scoreboards still track stats that do not contribute to objective-based play in battlegrounds? Why remove skirmishes as a PvP option when they could work alongside wargames? Why not use the same (potentially hidden) ratings that help determine arena and RBG matchups to compose battleground PuGs for more competitive games? Why not give tools to help players build the kinds of communities that draw people to the game, instead of containing those players and inviting inevitable failure?
To be sure, players love to blame Blizzard for everything, which isn’t any more fair than blaming game-starved XP-off exploiters. Providing an XP-off option in the first place remains the favorite gift of many a twinker. Cross-battlegroup games broke down server-based barriers. Blizzard even paid attention to important details, such as giving bandages level requirements. Embersilk bandages no longer worked in 39s and 49s, saving those brackets from extinction at the time. 70s (and some 60s) distinctly remember the presence of the high-powered bolt gun and big daddies before their significant nerf. For all the talk about twinking as an unsupported playstyle, Blizzard helped multiple brackets at critical times.
The illegitimacy and consequences of the XP-off exploit are a red herring. We face a much larger issue. We as a player community and Blizzard as our game provider must address what promotes healthy gaming communities, instead of just preventing what erodes them. Until then, fixing the XP-off exploit means little in the long run.
In the end, the lack of a 10-14 bracket is a shared failure. We did not manage to step up and get the ball rolling on a bracket with tremendous potential. As part of a larger picture, our failure stems from Blizzard not keeping pace with its players. Here, then, is my dark portent: without the tools necessary to help the next generation get into and learn World of Warcraft, the gap will continue to widen between what typical players call a “twink” vs. themselves. Merged battlegroups and 30% baseline resilience will mean nothing in the face of experienced twinks who will leverage the new mechanics, as we always have, to make the most of our characters. Fixing the XP-off exploit will not stop this.
Give us the tools to build our communities, and the benefits will reach far beyond our comparatively small population. Focus on shutting us down, and the very foundation of World of Warcraft will erode for all players. Twinks compose a very small subset of WoW’s population, but embody the essential min/maxing element endemic to World of Warcraft. Ultimately, what happens for XP-off players, happens for everyone.