Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cookie Cutter Specs

When I returned to World of Warcraft late last year and eventually applied for raids with my arcane mage, I was surprised by the focus on cookie cutter specs. WoW always had them, but with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion they started to dominate the entire game mercilessly.

This is especially interesting with the arcane mage spec. You can either spend all (but three) points into the arcane tree and gain considerable defensive abilities, or ignore all defensive abilities and put these skill points into the ice tree. This way you can gain one offensive ability that is worth a few percent of dps during a long fight.

Having been a raid leader during BC I knew that most raids don't wipe because of enrage timers, but because of prior player death. Now, the more dps you have, the sooner the fight is over and consequently the less chance there is for a player death. Still, does this justify to give up considerable defensive abilities to gain a little bit of dps?
In the eyes of my raid it did; I still convinced them to let me try my spec first.

In the beginning everything went well. I did average dps (considering my equip) and took less damage than anybody else – especially in magic fights. But eventually I was told that I should do more dps and shouldn't care as much about damage taken. “That's what the healers are there for”. I respeced and consequently did more dps. I don't think I died more often.
When my equip was finally complete, it felt great to lead the dps meter. But the doubt always remained: Did I act to the best of my raid or to the best of my dps meter?

Actually, I do not know. If healers spec only for heal per second and tanks only for effective health and damage dealers only for damage per second, the game can be beaten. You could argue that the game is balanced that way.

But where does this relentless focus on one number for every role come from? It certainly hasn't always been like that. And, should we welcome this development?

Although WoW is certainly not very hard to beat if you have a good internet connection and a grown-up raid, there is no other MMO I know of that focuses more on the performance of the individual. Blizzard reduced raid size exactly because they wanted it this way. The central idea here is justice. And it is hard to argue that this is a bad idea. However, it superseded another idea: The idea of individual, differing characters.

In modern WoW raiding, everybody performs within a deviation of perfection. Perfection is well defined by known skill rotations, if-then rules and fight-specific movement patterns. The firm believe is that, if everybody acts perfectly, any encounter is easy to beat. And while this believe is certainly well-founded, that doesn't mean that we have to welcome it.

The individual performance should matter. But it should not be measured in deviation from perfection, because this necessarily leads to the forced adherence to static guidelines. To be clear: I do not bemoan that individual skill matters, but that it is measured in deviation from a pre-defined and static perfection. This is only possible, because perfection is easily determined (elitist jerks) and measured (recount).

Although the designers of World of Warcraft in principle allow players to skill in many different ways, the reality of the raid encounters prevents them from creating an individual character. There is no space for deviation from perfection.

One way to address this is to implement different encounters that each require different skills. But there always is a perfect way to beat any encounter and if different encounters require drastically different skills, players feel forced to respec on-the-fly, which certainly is not fun. One way to counter this is to disallow talent respec during one raid id or some time interval. And while this leads to several problems, I do advise to look into this possibility. The most elegant way to allow for deviation from perfection, however, is to make the determination and measurement of perfection too hard to be practically possible.

More specifically, this means that raid encounters should not be balanced around the maximum possible dps, the maximum possible hps and the maximum possible effective health. Instead, they should require all classes to spec in a balanced way. All damage dealers should be required to also spec for survival, all healers to also spec for damage and survival and all tanks to also spec for damage.
All players should have an arsenal of 'fun'-abilities to cc/snare enemies and avoid or mitigate damage for a short period of time.

A different encounter design could also help players interact more. The only player-interaction in nowadays raids is healing, and this is a very one-directional interaction. A few raids ago, during Dreamwalker, I threw a grenade at some mob who attacked a healer. This certainly decreased my dps. But it also was a lot of fun.
This kind of player-interaction can also be reestabilished with a focus on 'fun'-skills, which really shouldn't just be fun and useless, like they are today.

It is much harder to compare the combination of several different cc/avoidance/damage mitigation abilities than to compare dps. If raid encounters required such skills, instead of maximization of only one number, elitist jerks regained the challenge to determine good specs. Today, all they need to do is to run a numerical optimization algorithm to determine the perfect spec.

1 comment:

  1. The question though if you make a non 95% of perfection the goal when does the game become too easy?

    We theory craft and crunch to produce optimal specs for our roles and know that blizzard cannot realistically punish us for this without ensuring a far better balance across all characters. Bloodboil back in black temple used to randomly target a raid member scaling their health to make them temporarily capable of tanking him (enraged such that he would hurt tanks badly if not overgeared at this stage). Simply if a defensive class got the buff it was a lol ability however if a Mage got it they often just died.

    To make us spec into other parts of the triangle blizzard needs to force it, but doing so will always reach an optimal point (10k health for najentus) after which you are wasting dps by being more survivable. To make the balancing simpler we fill our three roles and make the survival requirement low enough to be autofilled or tank based.

    Without tools to measure our closeness to perfection people will find other ways to estimate dps or similar simply from rotations and estimated hits to kill smaller mobs. Unless the game is a total blackbox, then we have a way to do stuff