Thursday, July 16, 2009

Does WoW Have All The Classes It Needs?

I was skimming through Stropp's blog, when his post on Blizzard's Cataclysm trademark reminded me that I never got around to commenting on that whole somewhat overblown kerflaffle. As he notes, Cataclysm sounds more like the name of an expansion than a new product, and the next WoW expansion is almost certain to be announced in a month at Blizzcon.

I actually took a crack at predicting the expansion's contents, just prior to the Wrath launch. At the time, I accepted Tobold's unexciting prediction that the expansion would contain a healing-based hero class. After all, healers and tanks are the two hard roles to fill, and this expansion added a tank. It appears that we may have been incorrect.

More Niches Than Classes?
The former WoW Insider links to an interesting interview with WoW (the game, not the now confusingly-named news site) Producer Tom Chilton. Though he confirms nothing, in true Blizzard fashion, he does state:
"...we don't feel that we can support the pace of adding a new class with every single expansion."

Looking back, this makes a fair amount of sense. WoW now has four tanking-capable classes, four healing-capable classes, and four classes that cannot do anything besides DPS. (Those numbers add up to twelve instead of ten because Pallies and Druids can both tank AND heal.) Breaking it down by talent trees, we have five healing trees, six tanking trees, and twenty three trees that can be used for dps (including feral druids and the three DK specs, which can also be used for tanking, for a total of 34 instead of 30.) Carving out a niche for each of those variations is a tall order that Blizzard is struggling with at the moment.

Eight months ago, I thought that the need for more people willing to heal outweighed those difficulties. Now, I'm less convinced.

Do more healing classes mean more healers?
Blizzard made a decision to design the Death Knight with three trees that could BOTH tank AND DPS, in the hopes that this flexibility would encourage them to tank as needed. In practice, the way the game is set up strongly favors players making up their minds which role they intend to pursue and sticking with it. As I noted at the time, you can get players to roll as a new tanking capable class by making a shiny new class, but that does not necessarily convince them to become tanks. The hypothetical Arch-Druid/Warden healer hero class, with three trees that can both DPS and heal, would have suffered largely the same fate.

Instead, Blizzard decided to go with dual specs so that current players of healing-capable classes could learn to do so. Though I don't have statistics to back this up, it does seem like finding a healer for a PUG (if not necessarily a great healer) has gotten much easier since patch 3.1. This solution is not necessarily ideal, as it blurs character identity. Then again, as Spinks observes, adding more and more tanking class options don't necessarily help find the tanks raid slots. That may be just as important a factor as the actual merit of the classes in question.

So What's Left for the Cataclysm?
The Chilton interview claims that there is a fair amount of ground left to cover, but chooses to mention only the two long-time front runners - the South Seas Islands with the Maelstrom, and the Emerald Dream. He also notes that they feel that new playable races should be races that have been seen in WoW before, rather than dropping Draenai in with no warning from Outer Space. Though he does suggest that BWL Drakenoids would be a cool player race - which would fit nicely with my Clash of the Dragonflights idea for an expansion - I'm not sure that making those guys playable would actually seem any less out of left field.

Perhaps Blizzard still would favor new races, with the opportunity to add in some new scattered content settlements in the 20-60 range to flesh out the new backstory. Or perhaps we're looking at a new expansion with neither new races (Blizzard does not seem inclined to use neutral races, so they would have to add two at once) nor new classes. If that's true, though, there will be extra pressure on Blizzard to deliver something that really makes players sit up and notice, if they don't want their expansion announcement - 10 new levels and what else? - to be a big disappointment.


Ferrel said...

Adding a new class is always a tricky thing prospect for designers. Players always clamor for it but really it can be the most awful thing possible.

The honest truth is there are only so many group spots, raid spots and roles. Players are notorious for min-maxing and if a class doesn't do something "the best" or offer something nobody else does it won't be accepted. That is why I actually prefer less classes.

Races, on the other hand, add that "different" feel and can offer quirky things that don't overly change the flow of the game. I am all about this sort of change.

Yeebo said...

I would like to be able to play a goblin.

Yes, I know they are neutral. However, if Blizzard can come up with some assinine back story to justify Alliance Space Demons they can come up with something to let you play a goblin. And Horde desperately needs a race as short as gnomes.

Pangoria Fallstar said...

I still don't have my dance studio.

spinksville said...

I think they probably could add more classes. It's just that raids are so tightly tuned that people will always need those classes to be very finely balanced, and I don't think if they'll find it too much work.

For example, we don't really have any melee healers in WoW. And there's no bow user without a pet (ie. pure archer type). And no evasion tanks aka monkish type.

I'm sure there's more scope for new mechanics too. They did a nice job on the death knights with that.

Green Armadillo said...

@Spinks: Those examples kind of illustrate my point.

Being in melee is a disadvantage due to various AOE etc, so a PVE melee healer would have to be significantly better than the current healers to ever be worth using. You could gun for a passive heal on DPS model, but that's already Blood DK territory.

A petless archer class would not have a tank. You could give them snares/roots, but then they'd be a mage with arrows (plus they'd basically be a petless hunter). You could go with a more melee/archery hybrid model, usurping the Survival Hunter role, but then you have a ton of balance issues. If they do more damage from range than melee, they'd rather be at range because they take less damage and benefit from the higher threat limit. If they're better in melee, they'll stay in melee and presumably compare unfavorably to pure melee classes. You can force them to dart in and out of melee, but then they're losing DPS time to movement.

As to evasion tanks, they're problematic because they tend to be underpowered until the moment they become invincible. Since most games don't want invincible tanks, the result is that evasion tanks tend to suck. DK's were kind of gunning for this niche in beta and it just didn't work out, and, as the link you posted notes, EQ2's monk/bruiser classes are the least used in the group game.

spinksville said...

Garm: I agree, but just because I can't think immediately how to make them work doesn't mean that no one else ever could.

I actually think WoW's 5-man group size works against it a bit here. There isn't much room for off-tanks or off-healers.

Whats my main Again? said...

With Cataclysm as a title another possibility would be a current event as opposed to a past one. Meaning a current cataclysmic event that remakes the face of Azeroth. This could provide a way to start players at a higher level as well as introducing new playable races.

The old world could still exist via some form of Caverns of Time mechanic, or the reverse in which we are traveling into the future.

I don't think they would completely eliminate the Old World entirely, or completely revamp it to fit the new expansion.

If the next expansion follows this kind of plot then I could see why they would not want to add another class into the mix.

Green Armadillo said...

@WMMA: I think that using the COT to go to the future is a distinct possibility for sometime in the next three expansions. That said, I'm not sure that we're ever going to see them actually advance the plot of "present day" Azeroth. There's no reason for them to physically remove content that some players are still using, and it would be very confusing to new players to start them at level 1 in the ruins of Goldshire and tell them they have to go to the COT in the Tanaris desert if they want to advance.

A year ago, I was absolutely convinced that Blizzard would have to start all classes at level 55 after letting Death Knights do so, and mostly ignoring the 20-60 content since TBC. I guess they still could. It would have to be in an expansion if they did, because you would have to implement DK-like starting arcs to introduce players to their full hotbar worth of skills.

Alternately, they could introduce a pair of new races that start at level 40 or something, so their newbie zones would also be usable by characters of other races, but the question would be whether ANYONE would continue to roll the old races in that situation.

Either way, though, Blizzard's official comments have indicated that they are NOT inclined to bump up the starting level. Perhaps that will change, and perhaps they don't want to kill current alt leveling by admitting it, but I'm less convinced than I was that any of these options are actually on the table.

DeftyJames said...

This might be a server thing but where I play there is still very much a healer shortage. Your point that just because you make a class doesn't mean that people will play it is golden. I think the real issue isn't some much class as encounter design. So long as the /tank/dps/healer paradigm reigns all the rest really is cosmetic.

If Blizzard were smart they would do Goblins and then completely redo the whole AH motif and make a merchant type class that offers a completely different way to play the game. Somehow the game has got to get beyond TDH trioka.