Monday, August 3, 2009

Specs and Character Customization

Suicidal Zebra made a post a week or so back about Ret Pally Specs in patch 3.2. He comments:
"...this isn't rocket science. There's still only 59 talents which increase your DPS, and taking all the essentials (including JotW) only requires an investment of 62"

There are effectively three things that affect character performance in an MMORPG:
- Out-of-game player skill (i.e. a world-class raider could sit down at my keyboard and get better DPS on my character with all of my other in-game choices intact)
- In-game choices that the player has limited control over (e.g. I won't have access to loot from bosses I have not killed)
- In-game choices that the player has full control over, such as talent specs

On paper, the point of talents, AA's, etc, is to allow for customization of characters. When you're done, you've created real differences between different characters of the same class. The cost of taking a specific spec is not being able to take a different spec. That cost is eliminated if there is no reason to ever use a different spec, because there is one clear winner.

Whether you've got the 9 talent points that the Zebra says Ret Pallies have to play with or the 2-3 that most mage specs get, the fact is that it's not rocket science to pare down most WoW talent trees to a core set of essentials. In fact, Blizzard has been systematically working to make this easier, by reducing "bloat" in trees over the years. I can look at the talent tree for a class that I've barely ever played and make a relatively good guess at what its raiding spec will look like. The same is somewhat true in EQ2 and LOTRO, with the caveat that those games' talent equivalents are not obtained automatically, so the player has to unlock options before being allowed to take them.

Perhaps stats that affect performance aren't a good place to put character customization. If the effects are too small, the choices won't be meaningful because they won't be noticeable. If the changes are large enough to make a real impact, there's always going to be a "best" option for the bulk of your points. In either case, it almost seems like the point of these systems have been lost.

Players technically still have the option to try off-the-wall specs (last expansion, I was using some very unusual specs on both of my high level WoW characters); occasionally, you might even find some unexpected gem that lets you solo raid bosses until the devs hotfix it. In general, though, powerful top tier class-defining options dictate how players should spend ever increasing proportions of their customization points. Without options, the choice isn't really much of a choice at all.


Rohan said...

I wouldn't be so sure of this. It's a very common view, but I am not certain it is correct.

Take a look at the warrior Protection talents. There is a core, but there is also a great variety of possibilities, and many tanks have slightly different specs emphasizing different aspects.

However, I imagine this is different for DPS, where the different possibilities can be theorycrafted out, and the best option chosen.

I suppose that argues for a core of DPS-increasing talents, surrounded by many utility talents. Since the value of utility talents is less tractable than pure DPS talents, there would be greater variety in which talents are chosen.

Klepsacovic said...

Even utility talents may end up being 'right' or 'wrong'. Imagine iceblock as a talent again and then imagine a boss which does a 99% health AoE every 5 minutes. Without the talent you're relying on healers keeping you perfectly topped off and not taking any damage at all before the AoE; with the talent, just iceblock through it. Clearly this is a rigged example, but you could imagine things like a mob that does a total aggro dump randomly but is untauntable, making deep wounds useful for getting a tick after the drop and iceblock useful for accidental frostbolts too soon.

Xtian said...

Customization isn't the only use that the talent trees have, however. They also allow the character to differentiate between specs and thus playstyles. Consider that without the core talents in the Discipline Priest spec, Blizzard would have to design a whole new class to give players access to that method of healing. Druids, Paladins, and Shaman are also good examples of this.

There's also a limit to the number of meaningful choices a player ought to be dealing with, especially for a game that, at least in some way, needs to cater to people who aren't going to do a lot of testing and research. Can you imagine if all 71 talent points represented an agonizing decision to make? There would be no experimentation simply because the number of viable specs would be ridiculous.

So to me, each tree represents a set of core talents that define the playstyle of the spec and then X number of options that allow you to customize your utility or situational capability.

DeftyJames said...

I sympathize with Rohan's perspective but I think GA has a point to. The difficulty with utility talents is making them meaningful in the game without making them OP in the game. I actually thought the Rogue Q&A on that point was interesting.

Spending talent points should have meaning. But if they don't have meaning in a raid setting, where do they. I think it's very difficult to create a utility talent that has uses in questing or PvP without that talent being used in raiding, at least as the game is currently designed.

In addition, there is the problem Xtain raises which is too many choices.

Yo man, it's hard.

Anjin said...

I'm going to come off like a broken record here, but I think this all comes down to the specificity of WoW-style endgames. I like having talents to pick while I'm leveling up. They give me goals to look forward to and I like the little play changes they invoke. It isn't until you reach the raiding game (or PvP if that's your preference) that players need to eke every last point of DPS out of a build. Then as the developers balance the game around players having certain statistical capabilities, you may find yourself at a disadvantage if you don't use the most optimal build.

TLDR Version: Talents are great for leveling, but bad for raiding.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I prefer it when the points are something that helps you round out your character, not something where "Thou shalt spend points for these talents, or be considered gimp for all time!"

For example, had a blast on my EQ2 Necro when I specced into the healing branch (I believe it's the Animist branch). I wasn't a main healer, but I could definitely throw in a bit to help if the healer was getting overwhelmed.

Same with my Feral Druid in WoW in TBC. I took Nuturing Instinct so I could shift out of cat form and toss around a few heals. Again, I wasn't a main healer and I didn't do it often, but in a few cases it was just enough to prevent someone from dying when I wasn't being beat on.

That's one reason I fell out of love with my Feral Druid, though. I didn't feel like I had as many cool options. There seemed to be a big push from the developers to make Feral Cat and Bear almost completely different specs. I went balance, and just didn't love the character as much.

So, I'd like to see a focus on talents that give characters something beyond the usual, instead of having a bunch of "required" talents that have to be bought. I think LotRO does this pretty well, in that the different specs are more like flavors rather than massively different roles; my healing-specced Runekeeper can still belt out the damage, for example. But, my Balance-specced Druid in WoW was never going to be even a good backup healer (especially before healing and damage were combined into the same stat).