Friday, February 4, 2011

On Complicated Priority Systems

This is a simplified dps priority system for feral druids in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

Feral Charge if you're not in melee range
Keep Tiger's Fury on cooldown (30 s)
Mangle if the 4T11 buff is about to run out (30 s)
Keep the Mangle debuff up on your target (60 s)
Ravage if Stampede is about to run out (10 s)
Keep 3xFaerie Fire up on your target (5 min)
Keep Berserk on cooldown (180 s)
Ferocious Bite to refresh Rip when the boss is below 25%
Keep a 5 combo point Rip up (22 s)
Keep Rake up (15 s)
Shred on Clearcasting
Keep Savage Roar up (duration depends on combo points used)
Ferocious Bite at 5 CP, if there's enough time left on Rip and SR
Ravage if Tiger's Fury is up
Shred to generate combo points and extend Rip by 3s (max 6s).

Is it fun?
Now, I play a feral druid, so I should be qualified to answer that question (and write down the system in the first place). My answer is: It's not too bad.

See, I have been thinking about this topic for a very long time. And the question of whether those systems are fun is a hard question. On the one hand side, I perfectly understand why Blizzard introduced the system. It is about "easy to learn, hard to master". Most ways that you can deviate from the system don't significantly lower your performance.

Generally, I agree with this design guideline. Games need to be accessible, but deep. Easy to learn, hard to master. They need to attract new players without overwhelming them, but must not be boring for the expert. It is the property of all great games. From Soccer to Chess. In some way Blizzard's priority system achieves that.

But at what price?
Back in Molten Core I played an Ice Mage. There was exactly one thing an ice mage did in classic WoW raids: Pushing the 'frostbolt' button. Was it fun? Yes.
That is a definite "Yes". Not a "It's not too bad". I know it was fun, because I did it for many, many months and at no point in time I considered raiding as a whole boring. How is that possible?

Well, the activity itself was boring. Of course. But the activity was embedded in a context. 39 other people did something, a giant enemy was fought. Things could go wrong at any time. Now, you could argue that the fact that I didn't consider raiding boring at that time, was because I had just started and in some way that is true. But on the other hand, I was a 24 years old physics student who had already raided like this for many months. If the activity as a whole was, indeed, that boring, wouldn't you assume that I had been bored by the 10th or 20th raid?

See, if a single player game would make me spam a frostbolt button for hours on end I'd call it trash. But firstly there is a middle ground and secondly, MMORPGs are different. The context is different. Doing something in an epic endavour is different from running alone through a Diablo dungeon spamming one button.

There was Teamspeak going on, whisper channels, healers would discuss whom to heal and if they could afford it, tanks would claim that more aggro is impossible. Someone would have to leave early and needed to be replaced. Someone needed to repair their equipment, some were talking about the numbers they produced on their screens.
There was no boredom.

Has there been complaining on the forums? Sure, some complaining is always going on. Some players certainly asserted that raiding was without challenge and the individual influence and responsibility was too small. But even heroic-difficulty complaining in the Cataclysm age is more dominant than any complaining that raiding was too 'easy' in classic.

After thinking about it for many weeks I tend to say that complicated rotations or priority systems are a mistake in a MMORPG. That is, because the advantage over more simple systems is questionable at best, and there are several disadvantages.

Firstly, these systems are much, much harder to balance. Don't try such a system without an entire group of game designers who do nothing else.

Secondly, players love to actually play their characters as good as they can and also like to see what is happening around them. You could argue that this ability is what makes elite players stand out in Cataclysm. But fact is that all players want to do that and to miss to use the interrupt, because you wanted to follow your complicated priority system isn't fun. Neither is it fun to deviate from your priority system to use an interrupt or move out of the fire. Before entering my latest WoW break, I was really wishing for a 'tank and spank' boss, because I just wanted to see how much dps my character is really capable of. This is also a mistake on the 'damage meter front', of course.

Thirdly, you feel constrained all the time. You would love to make your cat jump over there and wreak havoc, but you cannot. It will lower your dps. It is inefficient. The ghost of inefficiency is another evil that is molesting World of Warcraft, but point is that you feel as if in chains. Spontaneous decision making is disencouraged. Charging and stunning a mob that is attacking a healer? You're already busy with looking out for interrupts and your priority system! Moreover, absolutely nobody would exspect you to do that. There is so little emergent gameplay in Cataclysm raid encounters that the interesting decision whether to do something different never appears in all but world-first raids.

Fourthly, a good casual player knows what to do, he is just unable to do it, because he didn't spent enough time engraving the priority system into his muscle memory. This is not satisfying. This is not fun.

Lastly, in the case of a feral druid I am unable to achive a high performance in short fights or fights with fast changing targets. Most of my damage comes from bleed effects. And these take at least 30 seconds to build up and be useful. While this is a specific concern for feral druids in WoW:Cataclysm, it also shows the problems you can run into by using a complicated priority system. You could argue that the real problem here is the one-dimensional scale of performance measuring (dps) in this case. And I agree that it is a combination of both.

A lot of the fun in MMORPGs comes from the massive size, the social activities and the simulation aspect of the game. Improving gameplay in itself is always good, but if it comes at the cost of the other factors it needs to be reconsidered twice.

To treat the combat system as an isolated activity and try to maximize it's fun is not enough. Maybe it is no coincidence that a big company, that can sustain individual groups of 'balance designers', ran into this trap.
Fun is not an inherent property of an isolated activity. After analysing your MMORPG you must not fail to synthesize it again.

In closing I want to say that I understand that Blizzard innovated (drastically) when they started to implement these systems. And I congratulate them for their courage. In my opinion it didn't turn out the way you could have hoped it would. That's ok. We are still learning how to make great MMORPGs.


  1. I agree.
    Complex DPS systems create extremes. There's a great feeling from pulling off a perfect rotation and feeling one ability feed into the next. On the other hand, there's a pretty awful feeling from getting it constantly interrupted and then buffs aren't up and debuffs aren't up and next thing you're just stuck mashing whatever does the highest damage. That's a miserable experience.

    It could be a flaw of my keybindings, but I can't perfectly pull off my rotations while moving side to side. I run out of fingers.

  2. I think you might have the point.
    But I do kinda doubt without those sort of things you would still enjoy raids just as you did at start.

    I stopped played wow before tbc (shortly after BG and onyxia patch) and never really raided. And from pvp perspective I consider wow combat near perfect - lots of options and very dynamic. I tried wotlk iteration feral druid on emulator servers and enjoyed it more than it was in release (though from what I hear druids were best at some point in tbc where ferals could actually heal and occasionally nuke as well)

    Now in pvp there is more dynamics then there is in pve, you have to really pay attention to interrupts, stuns ,trinket cooldowns. I cant really imagine feral is in PvE is harder than PvP one (as in pvp you have to constantly shift forms - to drop snares and use bear charge and bash, while at same time spiking dps at best way possible ( and you get stunned right in middle of your perfect rotation all the time too :)

    So if there is complex rotation in pve, really what do you do there? Dont stand in fire? enjoy the environment? -Its not sarcasm. I really dont understand what keeps people playing pve for long time.
    Is it just constant loot rewards?

    - Don't get me wrong I like dungeons. To do full run once. Maybe twice. But why would I run it many times? If the next dungeons requires me "gear up" by doing 40 runs in previous dungeon - then I am out. There gotta be something to keep people interested , I do assume pressing single button for frostbolt for 3 hours gets boring no matter what

    It could be a flaw of my keybindings, but I can't perfectly pull off my rotations while moving side to side. I run out of fingers.

    Yeah thats reason they made razer with like 20 buttons . I use mx518 it has 6 buttons easily accessible and 2 more which are a bit pain but usable in a pinch. I bind all the stuff I use while moving to mouse buttons so it doesnt interfere with WASD.

  3. The answer is, if you don't want to play a complex priority system... don't play a feral druid. They have ALWAYS had the most complex rotation since who knows when.

    If you want to spam 1 or 2 buttons and marvel at the environment while raiding.... play a mage. AB AB AB AB AM/ABr x 1000. Obviously, also taking into account cooldowns, movement, and mana levels as well.

    Basically, having these rotations in the game gives players choice. No one is forcing you to raid as a feral druid, unless you enjoy the complex rotation.

  4. William, if that is the idea, it is ridiculously bad communicated in the character selection screen.

  5. Indeed, the in game information in WoW is woefully limited in regards to raiding. In order to actually raid, you've obviously had access to a ton of outside information already. Thankfully, if you really wanted to reroll, it only takes 4-5 /played time in order to level a new toon from 1-85 from scratch.

  6. Beside the lack of Blizzard saying "don't pick this class if you don't want a ridiculously complex rotation" there's also the issue of well, everything else. Players who like the lore, appearance, or whatever other intangibles, are also left out.

    There's also a balance problem to it. At what skill level is a class balanced? If druids and other melee DPS are balanced at the highest skill level, then the average druid will be weaker, meaning that for the majority of players druids are underpowered. Or if they're balanced at the average, the best druids are overpowered.

    I could accept something like pure DPS class trees varying in complexity, but for a class with only one option for that role (melee DPS), that's a problem. I guess that means arms/fury and unholy/frost could vary as well.

  7. Let's put it this way, William:

    If a developer of a new MMORPG asked for my opinion on this and told me that my concern is invalid, because players can reroll and it takes 'only' 5 days of continuous play to get to max level again with a new char.

    .. I told him that the crowd wasn't that hardcore - even before WoW had changed it.

  8. I think your argument relies much too heavily on what you in particular find fun. My friends tried to get me into raiding in Vanilla, but raids were unbelievably boring. By contrast I find raiding very fun now, and found it even more fun in Ulduar.

    I think that having to practice something until it gets into your muscle memory doesn't preclude fun. If it did then no one would describe playing a musical instrument as fun.

    Also, I disagree that a complex priority system reduces the number of decisions you can make. It constrains the space of good decisions for sure, but I know that my guild wins and loses raid encounters based on good decision making. You may want to pounce over and attack something else, but wanting to do it doesn't mean it's a good idea, and that would be true whether your rotation was complex or simple. A quarterback may want to run the ball every time, but that doesn't make it the best play, and he has to think of his team, not just what he wants.

    As far as I'm concerned the playing well and paying attention is the same complaint as the muscle memory one. If your brain could execute your dps rotation flawlessly subconsciously and leave your entire conscious mind to pay attention then you'd be awesome. In reality, all of us need to devote a certain amount of conscious thought to the environment and a certain amount to our gameplay and practice either reduces the amount of attention we devote to gameplay or gives us more effect out of the attention we do throw that way.

    So I think the question of fun is way too subjective, and I don't know how to aggregate it in a meaningful way. How do we know if it is more fun on the whole other than to look at subscription numbers?

    Lastly, you say they lose too much and gain too little with this system, but you don't mention the biggest gain: challenge. A master pianist can't show anyone how good he is by playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. After years of playing this game, many players are simply too good at playing it to have fun hitting one button in an encounter with simple mechanics. Without enough to pay attention to, I'd be watching TV while I was playing - like I did while healing Wrath heroics.

  9. Thanks for that smart comment, Sthenno.

    Of course, I have to concede that it is in the end subjective. But we can probably agree that there are limits:
    Some (imaginary) combat would be too simple for my taste and some (imaginary) combat would be too complex even for your taste.

    The fact that I play(ed) a feral druid probably plays a role, too. The priority system is really complex in contrast to some other speccs and is based on time-delayed dmg.

    In my opinion Blizzard achieves challenge the wrong way. At least with feral druids. These bleeds and timers are just too artificial. I am more concerned with getting the timers right than with something that feels like fighting. Also, the whole thing is too predictable. I could calculate when I will have to press what button next. Random proccs on my part don't help.

    Some years ago I would fight by throwing fireballs and these had an impact. Boom! That was fun. Nowadays firemages need to watch timers. Ask any firemage how much damage is fireball does: Most don't even know that anymore.

    Look, I am in no way a fan of action RPGs, but if you make a game have real time combat, shouldn't it feel like fighting instead of managing timers?

    In my opinion the challenge should not come from maximizing dps, but controlling the fight. Let me react instead of only act (or react predictably to 1.5s spells!)

    If you really raided WotLK while watching TV. Well, what can I say? Stop doing things for epics only ?

  10. Whoa, I didn't mean I raided while I watched TV, only healed heroic dungeons for my badges. Looking away from the screen against Lich King wasn't really an option.

    Tobold recently quoted from what I can only assume was a satirical forum post from a Warlock who wanted to cast nothing but Fel Flame. One part of it said that it felt more like playing Simon than like fighting monsters.

    Joke or not, that's actually a valid concern. If you get to the point that your mind is totally taken over by which button to push next then you don't have to time think about why you are doing what you are doing.

    I guess the problem that Blizzard is facing, which I think is a very difficult one, is that in order for encounters to be interesting, the players have to be making meaningful decisions. For a decision to be meaningful it has to affect your chance of winning (so there has to be a wrong choice) and it has to be non-obvious enough that there is a risk of making the wrong choice.

    For healing, which is what I mostly do, it's about casting the right spell on the right target at the right time. For damage dealers, I don't know how to implement a similar system without being really artificial. Right now, there are only two kinds of damage spells - single target and AoE (I guess DoTs could be a third kind) - and the decision of which one of the kinds to use is usually obvious and rarely made on the fly.

    Damage dealers may need to react to the fight in other ways, like getting out of the fire, but the current encounter design expects them to do that already.

    This is a real question here: Is there some way to design encounters so that players who are there to do damage have real time meaningful choices to make between their abilities? Is the problem of little dps interaction a result of a deeper design issue with WoW - that is, to solve it would we need to make a new game with different mechanics?

  11. Perhaps I should have stated more clearly that I was looking at it from a dps point of view. The PoV is very different. Blizzard, indeed, managed to allow healers to make interesting decisions - especially in small scale combat. I welcome this. In a raid it sometimes looks different from my (limited) experience, but that is really a different kind of beast.

    As a dps my interesting decisions during a bos fight are very limited. And the complex priority system actually hinders me, because I need to spend so much time doing something that could easily be automated.