On Theorycrafting

UPDATE: Haileaus tweeted on 30 November 2015 that they would prefer to use they/their/them pronouns instead of he/him. They also wrote an explanatory blog post. You’d edit a misnamed or mis-titled person in a news article, so I feel I should change all the pronouns in this article to reflect their wishes. Let me know if I missed any.

Haileaus is a rogue (with far too many vowels almost in a row in their name) and they “barely consider [themselves] a theorycrafter.” Well, that’s fine, Haileaus, because I also barely consider myself a theorycrafter. I’m much more a wordcrafter when it comes to theorycrafting, as in I can read theorycrafting (…mostly?) and convert it to plainer English with some of the unmentioned context for the wider playbase.

Haileaus wrote a post on theorycrafting’s role in World of Warcraft, challenging readers to “legitimately question the role theorycrafting plays in the game.” I don’t quite grok what they mean by legitimately question — I’m not sure if they’re arguing for theorycraft to disappear or whether they’re telling us to save this valuable resource that might fade away. But it doesn’t really matter, because I have thoughts on the subject anyway.


Indalamar versus the masses

Hey, this scenario Haileaus describes about early warrior theorycrafting impacts sounds a lot like that Warlock problem in Cataclysm. Y’know, the one documented by Cynwise’s Decline and Fall. I’m not just saying this because I used to put Cynwise on a pedestal. It’s more, Cynwise was the first in a long time (not necessarily the first ever) to publicly point out a disparity between the doing-well higher end and the life-sucks lower end player worlds of the class.

That “everything that has happened will happen again” isn’t just a Battlestar Galactica or Gul’dan & Khadgar thing.

This is part of my love-hate with SimulationCraft stack charts that get published and cited by players. It’s not necessarily the SimulationCraft is wrong, but more that players are just citing without thinking about the context that goes into and comes out of the SimulationCraft numbers. Is it Mythic gear? Is it requiring the legendary? Is it just Patchwerk? Does the fight change when you add more targets? What about movement? What talents is it using? Is this module even correct?

Cynwise was reluctant to publish his Class Distribution graphs because graphs can mislead a great deal if you don’t label things correctly or don’t even know what the graph is displaying. But graphs, like stacked SimulationCraft charts, are easier for players to visually pick up what’s going on rather than reading an academic-paper-length blog post or a ginormous forum thread.

You’d think as a guidewriter I’d be advocating that putting together the visual-verbal picture of a topic is important. It is, but sorry, that part is mostly window dressing. Organizing the information so the reader can comprehend all the included details without being overwhelmed, confused, or bored is the hard part. When constructing a post or guide on something that hasn’t even been figured out yet? Asking the right questions is the hard first step, and the subsequent hard steps involve documenting all the circumstances of both question and answer. This usually involves forgetting relevant things or outright ignoring relevant things because you didn’t quite realize yet just how relevant they were, and you have to go back to knowledge you’ve already explored, armed with yet more questions to answer.

And there you go. That’s the definition of theorycrafting.

Perhaps it’s my generation of culture & education, or perhaps it’s this era of gaming, but we’re rather stuck in the whole mindset of filling out to-do lists. Whether it’s dailies, achievements, or balancing class performance, people are far more content to just do the required things or to just answer (correctly) the required questions, and that’s the end of thinking. We’re very much focused on just getting the objective over with so we can covet the reward, rather than finding the reward in the pursuit of the objective.

So what happens is I find myself in a playerbase that far prefers answering questions as quickly as possible (rather than as thoroughly and accurately as possible) and doesn’t like having to come up with all the questions. When the old theorycrafters decide it’s time for them to move on from the game, there’s few or no one there who wants to step up and ask the questions.


Elitist Jerks

“Modern theorycrafting started in Wrath of the Lich King when raiding and the math that accompanied it were opened up to more casual audiences.” — Haileaus, “The Fall of the Giants: Theorycrafting’s Just Demise?

This is the line where I both agree and vehemently disagree with parts of the statement. As a forum, Elitist Jerks (EJ) by its nature opened up theorycrafting to discussion from around the playerbase, rather than keeping it to individual minds’ like Indalamar’s. And while anyone could sign up for an account and technically anyone could post, the social rules of EJ heavily promoted a garden walled with spikes. I myself lurked there for all my years, too afraid to post any questions I might have about theorycrafting. I was afraid that my inability to pick the correct search term to weed out what I wanted from the 100+ page forum thread would land me in the Banhammer forum section where EJ mods liked to mock those who received too many infractions for asking stupid questions.

My dad was a physics teacher. He always used to say “There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” As I’ve watched theorycrafting over the years and have recently dipped my toes in, I find this is more the case than EJ’s banhammer-happy world.

Another Cynwise piece keeps haunting me: On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal. Cross-realm has happened all over the place, both in instances like LFR and LFD and in the open world through CRZ. The ignore function has expanded and encompassed at least part of account-wide. Cross-server item mailing has happened for your alts, but you can also transcend servers in a way Cynwise didn’t mention — through account collections like the pet journal, mount collection, or heirlooms tab. Integration with other social media — Twitter! S.E.L.F.I.E.s! — happened.

I keep thinking of this Snow Crash post because of guilds — because of the guild BoE versus Personal Loot problem, because of the ever-growing drought of guild recruitment, because of guilds finally becoming cross-server (to the extent of guilds on merged servers) which was a proposal of Cynwise’s. (His other was being in multiple guilds, much like Guild Wars 2 already has.) Cynwise stated that guilds were the last obstacle for the WoW social network … and they’re slowly dying. (P.S., He wrote all this…3 years ago. Hold the phone.)

What does this have to do with theorycrafting?

The internet’s evolution and WoW’s social network evolution both involved heavy technological limits, namely how to connect servers to other servers without making any of the involved servers explode in computronic confusion. I said: EJ heavily promoted a garden walled with spikes. It wasn’t technologically hard to join the Elitist Jerks forum — all you had to do was sign up for the forum account, maybe verify your email, have a working internet connection and browser, and maybe have a good enough understanding of the English language.

But, as Haileaus mentioned, the expectation bar of the playerbase were growing higher, and theorycrafters were not immune to such hubris. While I guarantee most of those actually doing the number-crunching grunt work were probably some of the nicest and more encouraging people you’d ever meet, there was always that air of Banhammer lurking around anyone who dared to take their first wrong step inside the EJ forums. Many like myself who wanted to become theorycrafters didn’t because we had too much trepidation about being accepted socially within in the forum despite our lack of hard class knowledge.

Elitist Jerks opened up theorycrafting to the masses, but I wouldn’t say it was for casual audiences. It was clearly meant for the hardcore only. The only problem was that everyone wants to be accepted, and to be accepted meant you had to have the “hardcore” attitude — or, at least what we general players thought was supposed to be hardcore.


Organizing information to be read

On the one hand, Elitist Jerks was very organized. One thread for one spec. Done.

On the other hand, who the fuck wants to dig through a 90+, 100+ forum thread to see if your question has already been answered?

Using the search bar doesn’t quite help — you have to already know how to search keywords decently, and it’s very easy to follow from there that if you’re good at coming up with search keywords, you’re probably also good at coming up with questions, and so you’re probably already doing the theorycrafting yourself anyhow. The keyword search bar is not a newbie-friendly tool.

And this is even before we get into how theorycrafters like to talk in acronyms rather than in spell names. So the thread might actually be talking about Drain Soul but you’d never know from searching “Drain Soul” because every mention of it is as “DrS.”

You’d think that I would have learned the no-acronyms lesson at WoW Insider as I wrote for Blood Pact, the warlock column. The rule there (as is at Blizzard Watch) was to spell everything out. You can include acronyms as a teaching thing, but you have to say the whole spell name first. It was Grimoire of Sacrifice (GoSac) first, not GoSac ad nauseum with no explanation. I thought, Mists of Pandaria is the Warlock revamp, surely we’d get all our acronyms straight by now. While yes, those of us playing from the beginning knew what GoSac meant, I forgot about the newer players, the untouched alts, those who don’t want to dig through a year’s worth of blog posts just to figure out what exactly the fuck GoSac stands for. To me, it was obvious — there’s really only one thing in the Warlock arsenal that can possibly be called GoSac.

But then, that’s the point — I know all about the entire Warlock arsenal, but new players don’t.

After two years of writing the Warlock column, I finally learned the lesson, as I was then writing episode summaries for Final Boss TV. I would take live transcription-like notes during the live show, and then later turn those notes around into something involving actual English sentences. It took me until the enhancement shaman episode to figure it out, because Bay, the host of Final Boss TV, plays an enhancement shaman.

See, Bay is actually good at interviewing — he draws up the questions beforehand, the questions have a logical order, he pointedly asks a specific guest a question and then rotates around so everyone gets a word in, and he knows how to explore a question on the fly or otherwise separate out the really arcane parts of the question so the guest actually answers something both intelligible and interesting to the audience. Final Boss at the time was interviewing top raiders of each class and spec, with the purpose of exploring things about that spec at the top levels of raiding, hoping that those lessons would trickle down. So it was naturally a slice of media that was top players with knowledge talking down to lesser players who didn’t have this knowledge.

(Gee, that sounds a lot like guidewriting to me.)

In previous episodes, if the guests used an acronym term, Bay would be like me, kind of going “what is that (again)?” So the guests would be almost forced to talk about spells by name so that Bay (& by proxy, the viewers) could understand what they were going on about. But in the enhancement episode, Bay knew what they were talking about, so he didn’t need to prod for what an acronym meant. I was suddenly having to keep up with a fast-talking spec that likes to make a lot of its acronyms out of 2-letter combinations of U, E, L, B, and S.

I quickly became so confused. I lost my place in quite a few areas. And that’s when it hit me that those unfamiliar with the class/spec glossary must be so goddamned confused whenever they try to read either a written spec guide or any theorycrafting lying around, simply because it’s so riddled with specific acronyms., Or you get to put the burden on the guidewriter who needs to keep a running glossary going so you can tab back and forth, post to post, to understand what the wordy post means.

C’mon, now, you’re making the reader work way too hard because you want to be a lazy guidewriter.

As a human being, though, I didn’t want to be caught causing harm to others even if it was the slightest wrong such as writing a rather unreadable guide. I had that excuse ready — it was for wordspace!

…No. It turns out that it can’t be for wordspace. It might start because the various spells are being used in math, so you use the acronym like a coding variable. It might start because you don’t have enough time to type out Grimoire of Sacrifice but GoSac lets you get back faster to killing things in-game. It might be because you can’t fit Grimoire of Sacrifice advice on Twitter but you can fit GoSac advice.

But it’s not a wordspace thing. I took a very spell-heavy Blood Pact column and performed a simple experiment. I counted the words in the column when all spell acronynms were used and when all spell names were used. The difference was about 100 words (in an already 1500-ish word article), which is pretty negligible in wordspace. Most short news items are at least 150-200 words, if not 250-300. I saved more room by learning to write more concisely and with more clarity than I did by converting a spell name into its acronym.

So word of advice to aspiring guidewriters: know what the acronyms are so you can read the relevant theorycrafting math, but don’t use them profusely in your guides. I mention them to teach others what the acronym is — let’s talk about Grimoire of Sacrifice (GoSac) today! — but I use the full or partial spell name. “Army of the Dead” or “Army” is fine, but “AotD” and I’m spending more time like “wha–oh yeah, that thing” instead of concentrating on where the sentence is actually leading me.


Theorycrafting is an apprenticeship

A thing Elitist Jerks tried to have was a theorycrafting concepts wiki it called the Think Tank. When I learned about it in Wrath of the Lich King it was already outdated as it had been written in sometime Burning Crusade and EJ killed it off from inactivity as Wrath came to a close.

That saddened me. Here was the potential for all this knowledge that I could absorb on my own without having to bother the gods on their high heavenly pedestals of theorycrafting know-how. And it was simply wiped out due to lack of upkeep. Add in the toxic cloud hanging over me that stupid questions were not accepted in the EJ forum space (even if I was trying to learn!). Learning to theorycraft came down to either being born knowing all the class knowledge or silently trying to reinvent the theorycrafting wheel myself because those who knew things can’t be bothered with my stupid questions.

I realize now that this is a lot of assuming that theorycrafters are hateful people who don’t want my unclean lesser player hands grabbing for knowledge, and that really, theorycrafters are just normal people with real 40-hour-week jobs like me who just do this for shits & giggles and why, yes, of course, if you want to see my spreadsheet of gear, here you go, have fun with it & tell me about what you do with it, please. But it took me a few years of guidewriting and later mingling online with theorycrafters who eventually became their own class guidewriters to realize the normalcy of people.

But when you have old theorycrafters hanging up the hat, there’s a problem with new theorycrafters coming in: there’s no theorycrafting textbook. I can’t go to the virtual library and find a consolidated source that tells me what the formula for a spell’s damage is. Instead, I’m left with Google searching, sometimes forum searching, and sometimes those websites aren’t around anymore because the domain expired or the site was taken down or Youtube won’t let me see that video because I live in the wrong country. Or, even worse, the information that I do find is outdated but I don’t realize it because I don’t know what patch it is or when it changed (or when it changed back! or when it changed back again!). Even when theorycrafting is written down, it ends up much like the Think Tank did — it stagnates out of uninterest in keeping it updated. There is no Introduction to Theorycrafting for Questing Alts, 8th Edition lying around for newbies like me to pick up and begin theorycrafting.

Theorycrafting is very much an apprenticeship where you have to have already joined the theorycrafting community in your class and spec and tagged along in its contributions. It’s like memorizing the periodic table — you could sit there and flat-out memorize each element and its properties, or you can go the easier and longer route of just using all of it over and over again until you’ve straight learned what the properties are. And while that’s fair to the people who are currently theorycrafting — I mean, how do you think they learned it? — it’s a big leap from passively reading class guides that lay out absolutely everything you need to know to play from gear to spells, to having to do the work of asking questions yourself and designing experiments to test your assumptions.

Now, one solution is to create a textbook and keep it updated. But that’s failed in the past, and since we’ve already explored the cycles of human behavior, I doubt it’s going to win out just this one time.

So the solution I’m thinking of is we must teach others how to learn theorycrafting on their own. I think this is the stronger solution, too; it teaches a man to fish, rather than just giving him one day after day. Now, I’m sure you can debate about the definition of “teaching,” whether that means refusing to do so because shouldn’t people already know how to do the Scientific Method since what grade 5???, or whether that means you simply tell them what to do and eventually they’ll get it, or whether that means simply providing them with the environment in which they can learn (yeah, that’s an Einstein quote).

I’m personally a bit for the last one, for a couple reasons.

For one, it doesn’t change the theorycrafting environment as it is now. You just join up, usually through an IRC of your desired class or coding project, and you …contribute. What does contribute mean? Well, people doing the coding or doing the guidework are probably asking questions — hey, it’s part of the job. You can help answer the questions, though, by simply going on the PTR, testing things out, and reporting back. If you don’t know how to test a thing, that’s a good question to ask! Haileaus links a rogue class mechanics thread for patch 6.2, which has been out for a couple weeks now but still has some things that aren’t marked off. Just ask “what can I do to help?” and I’m sure the current theorycrafters can find you something to do.

For two, going the providing a learning environment route helps counter what I feel was EJ’s biggest turnoff: the hostile starting atmosphere and the idea that players should know everything simply because a guide exists for it. Hey, Schroedinger: does an unread guide contain useful information? You don’t really know until you read it, and if you can’t read it because it’s too difficult to keep up with because of acronyms or jumps in logic or math that you missed before, then, well, it might be correct, but it’s not actually useful to the reader since they can’t take it and apply it to things they do.

But while a truly open theorycrafting community would be nice to learn in, with the breaking of walled gardens comes the broader pool of players, some of whom aren’t nice about mistakes, or really, they aren’t nice about anything at all. You get the crap you have to wade through in popular forums of people who want to get the credit of contributing without doing the work. There’s useless information; there’s conflicting information; there’s information with missing, mislead, or even made-up pieces.


Environment of examples

Wanting to contribute to theorycrafting really got going for me when Theck posted his Theorycrafting 101 posts on the blog Sacred Duty. Although the post example was something simple like figuring out how much primary stat I’d have, the post itself illustrated the question, test, and answer cyclical process that theorycrafters go through in testing things. I found it really awesome how Theck walked us right into a wrong answer so he could show us how to check that answer and eventually reason out the right way to go about things.

Being able to look at myself and my mistakes and instead of getting mad, just realizing that not only mistakes happen, but you can work through them? That was a learning environment I could dig.

But this all rather comes down to the idea that theorycrafting is an apprenticeship — you have to do it to learn it. Theorycrafting communities could keep some semblance of a walled garden with specific users contributing specific things in a specific manner, if only there was some form of passive content that beginner users could consume to catch up on.

So my theory goes that we need to teach people how to ask questions again. How to figure out what’s important to ask, how to form goals with testing, how realize specific or general biases that could tip the results in a certain favor.

I see often that in order to dispute some theorycrafting conclusion, well, you need evidence. And yet, it’s really hard to find the theorycrafting evidence that started the conclusion, unless you already know where it exists. The theorycrafting community — to me, anyway — has a bit of a closed loop going, where I understand that they have better things to do than to answer questions that have already been answered elsewhere, but then don’t be so confused as to why new people won’t step up when old people leave. Y’know? Why can’t we just look at the information that is already available to the theorycrafters? Well, it’s that old search bar problem again — it’s a bit of a catch-22 in that getting at the information as a newer player requires the same critical thinking skills that got the information there in the first place.

As a guidewriter and blogger, I feel all I can do to help the situation is to maybe help contribute myself in some of the IRC chats, and to liveblog some of my theorycrafting attempts, which includes writing down all my mistakes and showing how I backtracked through to get to a conclusion. But I’m afraid to post these things because, as I said before, the playerbase is extremely toxic right now when it comes to information that is clearly in their eyes bloody wrong or missing the slightest detail. I suppose I should just muster some confidence in my writing skills and hope that journaling my steps into testing game concepts will help guide other players on their paths to learning theorycrafting.

Theorycrafting contributes massively to the World of Warcraft, and you should thank theorycrafters for their work and help contribute so they can continue doing it in the near future. But players — both theorycrafters and not — should also think about the far future where the current theorycrafters aren’t here anymore (because life happens). Should theorycrafting leave our game world with them? Or would you prefer the torch be passed on to the next generation, to burn just as brightly if not more?

On Theorycrafting

2 thoughts on “On Theorycrafting

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