Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Final Post on the New Talents

Choices are good for games, because the act of choosing can be made fun. Pondering on a choice equals consuming content. But that doesn't mean that every choice has to perpetually continue being a choice. It's perfectly acceptable if players sometimes leave content behind, just like they leave the leveling zones behind.

I've been analyzing WoW's new talents in three posts by now (1) (2) (3).

The first one was about the Druid talents. The other two have been about character customization and choice in general. My overall opinion is this: The new talents are going to be just fine during endgame. But there are several issues.

Blizzard won't succeed in preventing cookie cutter specs. I already demonstrated that with the Druid Talents. Making those talents almost equally efficient at endgame isn't enough. Remember that we come from talent trees that offered just 1% more attack speed vs. an awesome three seconds stun. And guess what was mandatory during the raiding endgame? No matter how little the difference in effectiveness is going to be: players will want to use the perfect talents for raiding and they will use the perfect talents for PvPing.

Having said that, it's actually easier to create hard choices for PvP - especially BG-PvP, because, as Azuriel has pointed out, even a simple talent can sometimes completely change the way you play. And there are many more ways to play a character in a BG than in a raid.
For example, using Typhoon to push opponents off edges plays dramatically different than kiting someone with Faerie Swarm. A choice, like that, which significantly changes the way you play, is much harder to evaluate and min/max and at the same time feels quite meaningful. Consequently, it is sometimes possible to create a meaningful choice about style. But most talents won't be like that.

Because Blizzard is not so stupid to make the talent choices completely irrelevant, my preliminary conclusion is that there will still be cookie cutter specs.

More important than the existence of cookie cutter specs, however, is the possibility to frequently change the spec. The fun part about a choice is the act of choosing. That's why allowing a player to change his choice frequently adds fun content to the game. It's a cheap way to do that, which usually comes at the cost of some meaning. This is not the problem here, however.

I don't disagree with frequent spec changes on principle, but I see a few issues. Changing talents will also make it necessary to change the action bars. If your character plays dramatically different with Typoon than Faerie Swarm, you might even want to change your hotkeys. But will there be a way in WoW to easily do that?
My advise to Blizzard is to allow players to create templates - a lot of templates. They have the technology for this with dual spec. But it should be extended to hotkeys, talents, gear and the actual role (sub-class). It also shouldn't be limited to two templates. (One template made sense for immersion reasons. Two does not. It is either one or many!)

This would solve the problem for the experienced players. Actually, even if Blizzard does not do this, the modding community soon will. However, this does turn the official purpose of the talents system upside down. New players will now not only face more mandatory talent switches, but also the challenge of setting up their user interface.
At the end of the day, we will have gained frequent switches between cookie cutter specs - and that's good for experienced players. But the new player won't have an easier time. In fact, he may very well have a harder time having to not just determine the one perfect spec, but all the perfect specs for all the different situations (e.g. bosses) and setting up his actions bars.

Call me cynical, but this might very well be the ulterior motive of the more hardcore players at Blizzard when they sold this system to the managers who wanted more accessibility.

During leveling this system is clearly worse, like Eric at ElderGame has already pointed out. The current system absolutely provided frequent and hard choices during leveling! It was absolutely fun during leveling! Moreover, you become more invested in your character if you choose a new talent every level.
To choose one talent every 15 levels is clearly worse during leveling. This doesn't really surprise me, though. Blizzard has quite a history by now when it comes to neglecting the leveling game. Even the Cataclysm revamp was only half-finished.

It has to be questioned whether choice is really the only benefit of this talents system. In my opinion its importance has been overstressed in recent years. Yes, choices are good. But so is growing a character! And growing a character is fun even if there isn't much actual choice. The talent trees were superior to no talent trees even if they didn't allow any eventual choice whatsoever!

Moreover, WoW still requires raiders to look up boss strategies on the internet. Why is having to look up a spec so bad then? In my opinion looking up specs is not harder than looking up and understanding boss strategies. For example, a spec can easily be copied from other players you meet in the game - even without them knowing. Alternatively other players can easily explain a good spec to you; boss strategies are harder to explain.

Player-knowledge is valuable for a game. It makes it easier for players to come back. The fact that WoW sometimes feels like a worn shoe isn't a bad thing at all. However, by revamping major parts of the game - especially the players' characters - Blizzard invalidates this accumulated player-knowledge. What might feel like fresh air for the hardcore player, can absolutely be an ice-cold breeze for the casual player, who decided to check out how WoW and his character is doing after a year of not logging in.

A lot of very interesting abilities which are mutually exclusive may create interesting choices, but it also means that every individual spec has less interesting abilities. This is one advantage of boring choices in talent trees: the more interesting abilities are all available as standard abilties. I am not saying that this is a big concern right now for Blizzard. But it is a factor that needs to be considered.

I absolutely expect a lot of the fun talents to sooner or later make it into the core-abilities of a class. This already happened quite often before. For example with mages' arcane explosion or evocation. Is the harder choice really worth the potentially less interesting gameplay that results from fewer interesting abilities between respecs?

My preliminary conclusion on this part of MoP is that the revamp isn't worth the effort. Sure, the Cataclysm talents aren't perfect. In fact, they are a bit silly at endgame. But that wasn't really an issue anybody would quit over. WoW has far more pressing matters than the talents system - even if it is fun writing about. Of course, adding 5 more levels would have required some new balancing, anyway. But it would certainly have been easier if Blizzard had just kept the old system or modified it a bit.

Choices are good for games, because the act of choosing can be made fun. Pondering on a choice equals consuming content. But that doesn't mean that every choice has to perpetually continue being a choice. It's perfectly acceptable if players sometimes leave content behind, just like they leave the leveling zones behind. Finally having found the right choice could even be considered much more rewarding than pondering on it for forever.
If anything, I consider the wasted leveling zones at endgame a much, much larger problem for the developer than talent tress with correct choices.

My last word on this is that I am thankful that Blizzard once again revamps the entire character customization to run a test. While I am convinced that it is not in the interest of WoW, it is absolutely in the interest of MMOs in general, and I look forward to how the new talents are going to perform.

Added a little 'About Me' section to the bottom of this blog.


  1. I think that's a very good summary and I pretty much agree with all of it. The only thing I would add is that cookie cutter specs aren't an issue of any specific talent system so much as of gameplay. For example as a holy priest I currently do not feel forced into a cookie cutter spec - as a healer there are a lot of different factors to consider, from hps to mana regen to cooldowns to boosting the utility of different spells depending on how often I use them. I can pick talents according to my preferences in those areas and different choices are perfectly valid. Cookie cutters down to the last point are mostly a problem for damage dealers, because their role in WoW PvE is all about maximising their dps and nothing else, so any talent either increases their damage, in which case it's mandatory, or it doesn't, in which case it's useless. Can't really win there.

  2. > During leveling this system is clearly worse

    In the time it took you to gain one level in vanilla you gain about 15 level with Cataclysm. So, the new system only reverts you to one choice per the same amount of time as vanilla. :)