Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dueling Racial Revamps in WoW and EQ2

EQ2 and WoW are both coming up on their respective five-year anniversaries. Both games are planning expansions that will include new starting areas (and substantially more in WoW's case) in the hopes of helping out new players and encouraging new alts. Meanwhile, both games are planning revamps to the way they handle their racial traits, changes that will be retroactive to existing characters.

However, the two games have taken slightly different directions with these revamps.

WoW and The Goblin Racials
When fans got to play the new Goblins at Blizzcon, the Goblin racial abilities drew some attention. The famed merchant race will always receive the best possible faction discounts, even if they don't have the requisite reputation with the vendors in question. Goblins will get remote access to their banks, and a rocket belt that can be fired to shoot enemies or propel the Goblins themselves forward.

When players saw these racials, the reaction was immediate jealousy. These tricks simply sound cooler than the abilities that other races get. Meanwhile, the new Worgen will have the game's only cosmetic disguise, as the Worgen can suppress their curse and return to human form out of combat. No worries, the devs assured us, all races will be receiving similar revamps to their traits.

(They also let it slip that they were reversing their prohibition on paid race change transactions. When they announced the faction change service, they claimed that it would permanently save your original race to prevent you from changing factions twice to end up as a different race.)

The thing that strikes me about these racials, though, is how deliberately they are focused on flavor. The list for the goblins did include one passive combat bonus, a 1% haste increase, and I'm sure there are situations in which the other racials might affect a battle (e.g. the rocket jump and flag carriers in battlegrounds). Overall, though, if the goblin racials are the model, WoW may be in for racials that focus on flavor over function.

New Traditions in EQ2
EQ2's racial trait revamp is actually going in for the next patch, and Feldon has helpfully collected the info from the test server. I could go on for paragraphs on how this affects various characters (indeed, a previous draft of this post did just that), but the bottom line is that SOE has made a very deliberate choice to homogenize the racial bonuses.

The current system gave out unique combat abilities to each race - some were mostly novelty, but some gave those particular classes a major advantage in group content. All of these abilities get the axe in the name of balance. Now each race gets passive stat bonuses aimed at certain class roles. They're balanced, but they're boring - my fire-breathing Sarnak can no longer breathe fire (and, as a priest class with a spell list focused on healing, having that extra attack skill was actually useful).

You may be even less amused if your race didn't get bonuses for your class and/or had existing bonuses removed. More to the point, one of the things that I really liked about EQ2 really early during my experience there was how every race could be every class. Now, the system says that each race should be one of two archetypes.

(Also note that no races were allowed to get both the tanking and melee DPS traits, because that combination would allow tanks to double dip, so almost all of the big strong races got stuck with the tanking and healing combination. Barbarians, Dwarves, Trolls, reptilian but no-longer-fire-breathing Sarnak, Ogres, and Frogloks all differ by a handful of non-balance-affecting innate abilities, and all are pigeon-holed away from melee DPS.)

The danger of perfect balance
In the end, neither company really wants to force min-maxers to pick specific races by handing out unique abilities; Blizzard made that mistake with priest racials and EQ2 is hoping to correct that situation today. It's possible that Blizzard's more flashy traits will be a step backwards in this regard, creating new must-have flavor of the month combos.

Then again, I feel like SOE has illustrated the danger of going too far in the name of balance. I've held off making a Wizard in EQ2 because I didn't like the two races with the best racials, hands down, for the class. After all of these tweaks, the same two races that I wasn't excited about (High Elves and Erudites) end up right back on top because they were allowed a special synergistic enhanced set of mage and priest bonuses. You'll never perfect balance, but you can take out a lot of fun in the attempt.


evizaer said...

It's always easier to balance boring vanilla perks and abilities. The great games give different classes/races abilities that make the others jealous, so no matter who you play you will always want to roll a new character to try out their abilities. Even if balancing such abilities is harder, the rewards of doing it right are enormous.

Sidhe said...

I think that making everybody equal by having the exact same racials/bonuses/whatever with different name or icon is boring and bad to the game...

BUT, if the differences are so big that one race becomes mandatory hands down over the others for a specific class... that it's also a bad thing.

Blizzard did right when removing priest racials, because some of them were really imbalanced (There's a reason why every Horde Priest was Undead... or a noob if non-undead).

Racial traits, for me, should always be about flavor and racial identity rather than gameplay mechanics.

It is already difficult to balance classes by role, if you add racials to the mixture... chaos!

TL,DR: Racial traits should be more about cosmetics rather than game-breaking spells.

Bertie said...

I bet there's a lot of people at Warhammer Online HQ wishing that they had just mirrored everything 100% straight across. Or rather, there would be if they hadn't already been laid off.

Seriously, non-fluff racials are an idea whose time has gone -- asking people to make crucial, irreversible decisions that radically affect their character's power at the exact moment that they have the least information available to make such a decision -- staring at the character creation scene -- is just daft.

Sidhe said...

@ Bertie: Amen!

Magson said...

FWIW, EQ2's current racials aren't really a big deal. Sure, the min/maxers think some are better than others, but I have a dark elf and I forget I even HAVE the ability that's supposedly so overpowering. I think I cast it once or twice right as I got it for novelty. It's on my hotbar, but... I don't recall ever actually using it in a real fight. No one's ever complained about my dps being lacking due to not having cast it either.

I'm actually something of a sad panda about the high elf race losing the minor defensive bonus it had. I've got a high elf SK, you see, and that racial ability did help a little. Not so much you'd notice without a parser, but it was nice to "know" that I had that little bit extra, even if I couldn't really see it in evidence as I play. Ah well.

I totally agree that the list of abilities looks way too watered down, but.... MMO's change. MY Warlock was the highest dps class out there... prior to LU13, anyway. My coercer could solo just about anything, but it kinda sucked to do it... prior to GU45. My SK used to be a little anemic in groups (though manageable) and now is considered to be godlike. Furies were once the toast of the town, but now are considered a little subpar.

And so on and so forth. This is why I have a lot of alts. They can't nerf all of them at the same time... can they?

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I think for the most part a lot of the complaints are of "the grass is always greener" type. I remember when WoW first came out and all the Horde players were complaining about Night Elves getting "racial invisibility" as a power. As a Night Elf Druid, I had to laugh. I never used Shadowmeld except as an easy way to go AFK until I got my cat stealth. The inability to move and the cooldown made it impractical in most situations, especially PvP with people moving around all the time.

In most games, I pick the race that at least somewhat fits with my class choice. In EQ2, I played a Kerra Necromancer. The thought of an evil, undead-summoning cat was amusing to me. My racial powers were not really very interesting or helpful. Was it the optimal min-max choice? Probably not. But, it's not like people wouldn't take me along to raids.

In LotRO, I remember someone telling me I shouldn't play an Elven Champion, because the penalties make it sub-optimal. But, at level 60, the disadvantages are not all that noticable. And, there are some advantages that can help if needed.

In general, I think that as long as there isn't a situation where you can't use any of the racial advantages, some variation is fine. But, someone somewhere will always cry that someone else has it better than they do. Even if things are perfectly even.

Yeebo said...

Honestly, I thought that EQ II had one of the more interesting racial systems. Nothing earth shattering, but it added nice flavor. It's a shame to me they are ditching it.

Nick said...

The player imbalance between the two games hardly deserves the word "Duel" as wow is clearly dominating the market. However, I like a lot of things EQ2 has done with their character progression systems. It seems a little lame to make such large changes so late in the game, but as most EQ players will say race doesn't matter, it probably doesn't matter too much. Probably makes a little bit more difference if you like to PvP.