Hi. It’s time for another one of my long, thoughtful rants - Though it may be my first post in dungeon/raid forum in particular.
Today, we’re going to speak about an imbalance that has been growing since Legion and the borrowed power era - One which has remained after borrowed power has been removed. It affects the entire metagame, players’ opinions of expansion features and rewards, as well their choices especially on a seasonal basis. It’s created a divide in the community that most people haven’t noticed or defined, at least not as I will in this post.
Let me start off by saying one of my favorite times for class design and encounter design was WOTLK. No, I don’t mean classic, I mean real WOTLK back in the day. They are different. There was something magical about the era when Ion Hazzicostas could write himself cheques as a class designer that he could cash as an encounter designer, since he was both. I feel this is missing from modern design. I don’t think Ion will demote himself though, so we have to come up with solution.
As usual, this will be a lot of words. Believe it or not, most of my time is spent editing it down… Still, strap yourselves in.
What I’m here to discuss is how the complexity of difficulty of encounter design has been out of control, Whereas the complexity and difficulty of classes has become a hollow shell of what it once was by constantly being pruned, simplified, standardized and homogenized. I want to discuss how that affects what people “think” they want to see changed in the game, and how they’re only playing themselves when they give such feedback.
So what’s the problem?
There’s few things I dislike more than seeing a class or spec “simplified”. Not just redesigned, or iterated on, but simply being reduced by having spells combined or removed.
Every MMORPG I have played that imposed some 5-10 hotkey button limit has been aggressively mediocre, and I don’t want to see WoW go down that road. How popular is New World with its 8 button combat? Not very. We are PC gamers, we do not want console controller-friendly interfaces, or a game made for simple minds. If we did we wouldn’t be here, playing one of the oldest and most complicated MMORPGs in the world. Notice that as the more classes were reduced in scope, the more people unsubscribed. Especially during the borrowed power era, When the seasonal mcguffins ended up representing more of your performance than your actual class did. Also notice also how popular Baldur’s Gate 3 was - A game where engaging with class fantasy both in and out of combat was the Dev’s priority.
What we can learn from all of this, is that most people playing any time of RPG will gravitate towards a certain class or archetype, and just want their gameplay experience to revolve around that, consistently. They don’t want a special generic powerup everyone gets, They don’t want to do things that make no sense for their class fantasy, and they certainly don’t want to reroll their class every 5 minutes because their current one fell out of fashion.
Even the most “I don’t know lore” type power gamer, deep down, has this as one of their intrinsic motivations. We. Want. To. Play. Our. Class. The one we picked. The one that “called to us”. Therefore, the type of person who commits to a main character is who Blizzard should be designing for, not the type of person who wants to swap around willy-nilly with every balance hotfix.
Now that we’ve escaped the “Borrowed Power Era”, what we NEED is more complex class design, and simpler encounter design. Dragonflight already started this process, and both players and developers need to be ready for more in 11.0 - Let’s talk about why.
So… What’s the fix?
So what if Blizzard decided to try to fix this? What would that look like? How could we get to a game that makes classes and specs a bit more complex while PVE encounters become a bit less complex? How can we make a game that rewards a committed main character, applying some friction to alt swapping without being too punishing?
Well, surprise! Dragonflight already started this. It’s already the direction Blizzard is moving. Talent trees brought back a lot of complexity to the classes and specs, and there’s been a de-escalation in encounter mechanics, with the raids being easier and M+ affixes getting cut back. Account wide buffs for alts, such that it isn’t “free”, but things like currencies and renown being made more alt-friendly without becoming trivial.
So - If you were firing up an argument against what I’ve said thus far, know that you are wrong and I am right, for Blizzard is already on this path. People praise them for it. What I’m asking for here though, is MORE.
Wonder what would another step in this direction look like? Well, here’s 5 steps I think we need.
5 things to make WoW feel rewarding again
1. Committed Main Characters should be rewarded for that commitment.
One way is by simply designing specs to have a higher skill ceiling and lower skill floor. A big cause of the FOTM-swap compulsion is just how EASY it is to switch to something new and immediately spit out near-optimal numbers. There should be a learning curve and performance scaling up beyond copying a cookie cutter build from Wowhead. Possibly even options for simpler and more complex builds for players to graduate through as their skill and APM improves.
Secondary stat scaling is another factor. There are certain classes that always seem to do better earlier in an expansion due to having higher base damage but worse scaling. And the opposite is also true, once secondary stats get high enough certain classes always seem to be propelled to the top. You can see these classes easily this season; They are the ones prioritized for PI and Augmentation buffs. Why have Warlocks been in the top 3 simming DPS in nearly every patch since Hellfire Citadel in WOD? This is the reason, regardless of which bolt-on borrowed power drove it in each patch. This disparity leads to a pressure on players to FOTM swap on a predictable basis depending on where the current expansion cycle is. Solving this would help players commit to their mains. Blizzard developers have never, ever been able to solve this, so progress here would be both appreciated and impressive. Classes can prefer different secondaries, but there should not be such a dramatic difference in how much classes benefit from the same total amount of stat points especially as the total pool of stat points increases.
Yet another factor is to avoid having everything someone worked for, completely diminished and replaced on a patchly basis. Especially the idea of “catch up systems” which reduce the grind/time for something that other people have already completed. In the current game, A lot of people feel like the “best” way to play is to just wait until something that was hard to get, is given away for basically free. So, stop designing things that need to be nerfed into oblivion later, and stick to your guns when you want something to take time and effort. EVERY TIME you invalidate one grind I’ve completed, I’m far less likely to work on the next one since you’ve now taught me I’ll be punished for doing it when it’s new, and rewarded if I avoid it until later. It may feel great for the wishy washy alt swapper, but it feels awful for a committed main.
Finally, some games reward players simply for tenure/login time. This would require a bit more thought to do correctly without feeling like a chore - I don’t recommend this, but it’s an option to acknowledge.
2. The barrier to entry should be higher for alts and replacements.
It should be that a group or guild that needs a certain spec goes out and recruits an experienced player of that spec, Instead of the current meta where people drop and swap their mains over a 2% difference in damage. Can you imagine giving a legendary to a player who rerolls next season? Back in the day this was considered extremely offensive, nowadays I bet it’s pretty common. Then again, nowadays people expect legendaries to be like Legiondaries where everyone gets one or else they cry about fairness. Heck, they do that over “very rare” items. Another problem with the Legion Kids, they’re insufferable crybabies and act like they’re entitled to full BIS no matter what. Ridiculous. But I digress.
Widening the skill floor and ceiling for every spec will help achieve this already. But I do think part of this change needs to come from the playerbase too, accepting that you can’t just have everything at max automatically like you’ve got Game Genie turned on for WoW. There’s plenty of games with that “sandbox” approach, WoW isn’t that nor should it be so please stop asking. Plenty of those games would love your playtime, they’re made for you. But if you have the perspective I just described, then WoW, and MMORPGs in general, just aren’t really made for you, and you’ll be happier going somewhere else, rather than trying to force the developers to make this game something it’s not meant to be.
On Blizzard’s end, I actually think that improving the levelling experience, providing class-specific content (everything from old school class quests to the more modern take of Legion’s Order Halls) is an easy first step. Instead of people hating the work of rerolling, it should be that they enjoy the effort and it rewards them for their time. The current levelling experience, both new player and chromie time, is just GOD AWFUL for class fantasy. The only ones that feel somewhat OK for that are Cataclysm and Legion. The rest feel like you’re playing the expansion’s story rather than your class’s story in the expansion. This subtle difference is a big contributor to why people act illiterate when it comes to quest text - Although there was always that “class clown” demographic, proud of their ignorance of the lore, They’ve really swelled in numbers as the story and class fantasy took a beating in the last couple expansions. Unfortunately DF isn’t great here either.
But, One thing Dragonflight has done that I want to see more of, is story quests having slight alterations or dialogue, for specific races/classes as well for characters who have certain old quests completed. When I did the human heritage quest and it actually remembered I did the old vanilla Onyxia Attunement, that was great, and that’s something FOTM swappers miss out on… But it doesn’t happen often enough for them to feel the pressure. Baldur’s Gate 3 proves people love things like this, if you need an external source. So, do more of it. A lot more. For a relatively low developer effort you can massively increase the replayability of the content. Go into major story quests knowing you have to write 13 different slight variations of the dialogue, and lean into it. Stop writing dialogue to be generically applicable to “The Champion”, literally nobody enjoys that except corner-cutting developers.
Caution should be taken to ensure the friction against swapping an existing person to a new spec should come from the difficulty of gearing, progressing, and mastering that new spec, Rather than artificially creating this friction with fake rules. For example the Shadowlands Covenant method would be a disaster. This relies on a good reward structure - When the reward structure is bad, people ask for weird account wide things that don’t necessarily make sense, and they can be hard to roll back later when the reward structure is improved. If any Blizz Dev reads this - PLEASE keep this in mind. I hard disagree with account wide crests, and I’m so glad we didn’t go that route. The main reason people wanted to mail them away was because the crests were just too dang easy to get, as I mention above, when the reward structure is bad people get bad ideas
3. It should take longer to learn to play a new spec at the highest levels.
Nothing worth doing is easy. Nothing easy is worth doing.
Blizzard has always been a game developer who understood “The feeling of mastery”. While players sometimes fall into the trap of so-called “coke logic”-- “Big numbers feels good! Do more dam more targets more AOE more big numbers yeah!” that’s not really good for any game. Maybe it’s fun at first, but there’s not much depth to a metagame like that, which leads to people getting bored and wandering off. We don’t need to design for the lowest common denominator.
The most satisfying games are the ones with a wide range of skill to progress through. While we have this in our content, clearly labelled (heroic, mythic, etc) - We don’t have it in our class design. Not really. People see talent builds as “good or bad” instead of “Easier, but less effective” and “Harder, but more rewarding”. This in part is due to bad design and a playerbase that has been trained to have an “all or nothing” mindset.
Talent trees should continue to offer “low skill” options to start people out. These options are good - Some examples are things like Crusading Strikes, Devastator etc which combine an ability with auto-attack, removing a button and reducing the APM required to play the class. THE PROBLEM IS, Often these “lower APM, lower skill” builds end up optimal in terms of damage. That should absolutely never happen. The higher APM, high skill build must always be the one which produces the best result. If Blizzard could achieve this, then there would be a path to swap mains and build up individual skill to the new higher skill ceiling we’re establishing, while preserving a more casual gameplay style for those not wanting to invest the time. But we can’t keep letting the casual gameplay styles be the optimal one. I’ve even seen people claim it’s better design to have less buttons. NOPE! It’s better for simpletons who barely know how to operate a desktop computer, but again, we’re not making the game for those people, right?
And for the Blues - It’s just bizarre and demotivating to think that the Developers don’t understand that effort required should be proportional to throughput rewarded in combat. Especially when they clearly understand that type of interaction when it comes to item level rewards and difficulty. I can’t help but think this is because Class Designers and Encounter Designers are way too separated. I want hybrid Ion back. I think every encounter designer should have to be part of at least one class’s design team. You’re too disconnected from each other.
4. High Burst cooldown windows need to come down from the moon.
Some may think this is complexity, or high skill gameplay, but it’s really not.
By putting all the eggs in the 15-30 second burst basket, you actually reduce the complexity of play. If the majority of your throughput happens in such a short window, the rest of the time your rotational buttons almost don’t matter. And if your burst window gets messed up on one fight, you’re ruined. People often confuse high risk/high reward for complexity, because human beings are on average weak with understanding probability and statistics. I’m not saying burst or variance in damage profiles is bad, I’m just talking about the extreme end. And even though it can be quite technical and fun to have a “nuclear launch sequence” style of play, there is a level where it becomes “clunky”.
And so, I must acknowledge even though I’m generally against “simplifying” classes, I can see the value of the recent/upcoming changes to things like Arcane Mage, Unholy DK, Demo Lock. And funnily enough, it seems like by having their complexity reduced, they got their power reduced. Wasn’t I just talking about that? Even more funny is that people are surprised/upset that this is the case - Did you not understand what you were asking for?
That said, if we are making encounters simpler and classes more complex, we must take caution with these sorts of “Quality of Life” changes. For example - if the cognitive load of encounters were lower, would people have hated Rune of Power as much? Probably not, since then they could actually use it. It’s important to consider the second and third-order effects of such changes. Unfortunately, WoW’s community has gotten pretty bad at this type of critical thinking, for reasons stated earlier. I hope the changes I’m suggesting will help remedy that and train people to think again.
- The amount of time required to learn a new encounter should be less.
The difficulty of the endgame should come from trying to execute your perfect optimal rotation while doing some moderately difficult mechanics – Instead of the meta we have where the optimal rotation is totally braindead, and the mechanics are super high cognitive load but then people unload it from themselves using computational addons, creating a perpetual sense of learned helplessness where players are always waiting for someone/something to tell them what to do while putting 0 thought into their button pressing. This is probably the most rotten holdover from the borrowed power/computational addon era - You don’t play the game, the game plays you, and we have people who honestly prefer it that way, which scares me.
These days, I have every class at max level, but I know only my main can perform at the top level of gameplay, because I just have literally thousands more hours of playtime on it. A lot of people don’t understand this relationship between playtime and skill, because they grew up in the “Borrowed power era” where Seasonal Mcguffins were what made their character good - and so that drives a lot of the “account wide” arguments.
I’m a very tenured, intuitive player who is comfortable with numbers - having played the game since the beta of Vanilla when the level cap was 50 and BRD/ST were the endgame, coming over from Everquest with the high end raiding scene back then, when everyone started to move over. I remember when Tigole and Furor were just snotty Warrior tanks in FoH/LoS. I’ve played MMORPGs since I was like 8 years old, earlier if you count text-based online RPGs like MUDs thru a telnet client. Because of that, I have reactions, muscle memory, typing speed and intuition that most people just don’t have. I can usually eyeball-sim things pretty well, reasonably close to the actual sims when I check. I can support a much higher cognitive load without addons than most people. And I enjoy using my brain for these things, I’m only going to turn on a Weak Aura for the most egregious of mechanics where it’s socially unacceptable to have it off (Hi volcanic heart).
I get that i’m different from most players, both the hardcores and the casuals. Not better, just different, though usually a lot more experienced in the genre than most.
In spite of that difference, I still I know i’m not alone in thinking the addons vs mechanics arms race has crossed the line many times over. I agree with RWF raiders like Max stating that over-use of some addons actually messes with your natural situational awareness and can overcomplicate something that is actually simple. During a conversation with Echo raiders discussing previous tiers, he cited an example, I think Drestagath from Nya’lotha, where Liquid’s weak auras broke so they YOLO’d the fight and it was actually just easier that way. Their players could play better on the fly than their pre-scripted addons could tell them to. That’s not always the case, but it’s something to think about.
But if encounters were easier and classes were harder, we’d end up not needing these computational addons as much. Not only that, but it would reduce the social friction of getting into new content - People are always annoyed at the scrutiny applied by both guild applications and even PUG groups, It feels worse than the job interview sometimes. In a world where being good at your class is more important than being good at the current raid tier though, your previous season logs and history would speak louder volumes for your performance than if you have killed X boss or Y Key level this season. The friction would be further reduced by the fact that pressure to FOTM swap would be gone, so your previous season logs class would probably match the current season’s, meaning your credentials could actually speak for themselves.
See how nice things could be once the game’s design has been detangled? A lot of our social friction is based on the bad implementations we have. It will take time to shift the cultural meta even after game changes have been made too.
Bonus: What if flavour were more important?
One casualty of the prune-add-prune-add cycle is a lot of the flavour the game used to have - especially when game mechanics and roleplay immersion intersected. An example of this is how when we had hit% as a secondary stat, Dual Wielding classes often needed more than the others to maximize their playstyle’s damage, which makes sense because dual wielding is harder and less accurate. While I don’t think we need to go back to those old school stats with soft/hard caps, There is something to be said about the intersection of mechanics and immersion. It’s something World of Warcraft used to do really well, before the borrowed power era - But the it hasn’t come back since we got rid of expansion wide borrowed power systems.
I have a few ideas for things to de-prune though, that would give both players and class/encounter designers a lot more to work with.
Lockpicking and Trapfinding- This needs to come back, in a new form. All AGI specs would receive one of either Lockpicking or Trapfinding/disabling baseline, and a talent option for the other. This would be used in dungeons and raids - So AGI specs would be the “job doers” for certain mechanics. Imagine Zskarn mines, except instead of having a fat tank or immunity jump on a bomb, you have an AGI disarm it instead. Perhaps, they could even receive an “incentive talent” which gives a small damage boost after successfully doing it, similar to interrupt talents.
Profession consumables for these would need to be removed - Professions should never encroach on the class design space, ever. If this design feels too limiting, then a couple other specs could have it, if the flavour fit - EG Mage with an “Arcane Unlock” talent. I also think drums should be removed, and heroism can go to more classes as an optional talent. Again, nothing should ever encroach on the class design space. Class design is the most important factor in whether the game is good or not.
Tanks with defensive raid CDs- I’d like to see healers/dps have less “group/raid defensives”, and some of that move to tanks. Right now tanks are in a weird state where people play them like DPS, and any tank really good at surviving but low damage is considered “bad”. One way to lean against this ideology is to make tanks better at, well, tanking. It fulfills both the roles intended purpose and the fantasy behind choosing a tank.
EG: Prot Paladin used to have a “Power Word Barrier” type effect that relied on the raid being behind them as they raised their shield. That’s perfect. Bring that back. Give every tank something like that. Make tanking about protecting your allies, not being an AOE DPS machine.
Threat, and related abilities- I know some people think aggro is a bad mechanic and want it removed. I know some people want it like Classic. I think both are wrong. Threat needs to exist, and it needs to exist outside the first 2 seconds of the fight. When it does, we can have talents and spells to reduce threat, which adds a layer of interaction and tactical play the game is missing these days. As we lower tank damage then we’ll need to adjust threat modifiers anyways, so this is a good time to do so.
Support- I know people are pretty down on support right now and I can’t blame them, Augmentation definitely had some flaws in its design, some really obvious ones I can’t believe the developers didn’t pick up on (Like the buff stacking, did you REALLY not consider that?) – But I actually think support is very important for the future of the game. Many other MMORPGs make this work. But the problem with Augmentation is that it was framed as a DPS, and not its own role. Another problem is that the game wasn’t actually designed for it.
The other MMOs that make support/control type classes work have designed enemies and combat to require those extra buffs, debuffs and CC. A great example is another game that came out in 2004, City of Heroes. The way people played high end missions with high mob density is very similar to how people play M+ today - except in CoH, you could afford to bring someone in your group whose metagame job was to keep mobs debuffed and controlled to protect their party, while still doing moderate damage / damage amps. This is the type of support I want to see from Augmentation, from Bard, from Tinker, from Necromancer. The current interaction of Augmentation as a damage meter buffbot is no good. Go back to the drawing board and make them more CC/debuff focused while rebalancing enemies to be more CCable. If Blizzard can figure this out, we can get a new class every expansion for the next decade.
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
As usual, I’ve made a post much too long for many people to read, but if you made it this far, I commend you. Thanks for listening to a lunatic who has like 30 years of MMORPG experience. As always, it’s my hope that someone at Blizzard reads this, although realistically I know they won’t, but maybe a community manager can sum it into bullet points when they comb the forums for feedback, or something.
Still, metagames aren’t built in a day, they evolve over time with gameplay and conversation, and this long post is my contribution today. To anyone who DID read through, I’d love to know what you think.
See you in 10.2.