World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion is quietly shaping up to be almost more of a sequel than a traditional expansion. We already knew that they would be replacing the existing game world with a new one set six years in the future from the game's original launch. Earlier this week, in a story that no one on my blogroll has commented on because of the uproar over RealID, they announced a change that may have equally major implications - a complete overhaul of the game's talent system.
Under the new system, Blizzard is essentially replacing WoW's 10 classes with 30 sub-classes.
The state of the trees
The modern WoW talent system gives players one point for every level starting at 10, for a total of 71 points by level 80. These points are divided amongst three trees that are unique to each class. The final point in each tree requires 50 points spent, so typical builds take 51 or more points in a single tree and split the remainder amongst the low hanging fruit of other trees.
Philosophically, talents are about specialization, rather than alternate advancement (as seen in EQ2's AA system or LOTRO's traits). Every character of a given level has the same amount of talent points, which are granted automatically upon leveling. The cost of spending 51 points in a tree is not getting the abilities that cost 21+ in the other two. This approach creates two issues.
The first is that tree-defining talents must be placed deep in each tree. Anything in the first 20 points can be obtained by other specs. For example, melee Enhancement Shamen currently cannot get the ability to dual wield until their 31 point talent at level 40, because the other two specs of Shaman are spell casters. No other caster can dual wield, and it is not worth the bother of balancing around exactly one spec combination of one class (e.g. Elemental caster Shamen who happen to have taken Enhancement with their leftover points) carrying around two spell power weapons.
The consequence is that a leveling enhancement Shaman needs to use a 2-handed weapon for their first 39 levels. Many classes need to wait as long 60 levels to obtain 51-point talent abilities that will be the core of their damage rotations at level 80. If you care about new and low level players, which everyone does these days, that's way too long to make players wait to actually play their class.
The second issue is one of balance. The addition of even a single talent point allows specs to reach previously unattainable 21-point talents in their off-trees. Worse, each tier has to be more powerful and more defining than the previous tier if Blizzard does not want players to start going with hybrid 2-3 tree specs. It's hard enough for Blizzard to balance a role for each of the existing 30 trees without worrying about the prospect that some obscure 41/30 spec will turn into an overpowered/broken combo.
What is changing
Under the new system, players will effectively choose a sub-class - one of their existing talent trees - before spending their first talent point at level 10. Choosing the subclass will immediately grant a previously exclusive talent ability that will not be purchaseable by the other subclasses for any amount of points, even if the next expansion adds a thousand of them. For example, the melee Enhancement Shaman will immediately receive the dual wielding ability, along with a previously 36-point off-hand attack.
Speaking of points, there will be way fewer of them. No tree will go further than 31 points (down from the current 51), and players will receive only 41 points by the new level cap (down from the current 71). To further constrain things, players will not be allowed to spend a single point outside their chosen tree until they have spent 31 points in the main tree. Effectively, players will have a mere 10 discretionary points to divide between the two off-trees and/or additional points in their main tree.
The end result is a dramatic reduction in the range of customization options at players' disposal. The variations between specs of a subclass will be much more akin to the variations on a theme in EQ2 subclass AA trees. The theory is that, in exchange, each subclass can be more unique and better balanced against the other 30 subclasses.
Why and How
All these problems were well known, but Blizzard's initial plan was to ignore them and blaze ahead with five more talent points for the five new levels. To be honest, I didn't think they had the nerve to mess with something so fundamental. Perhaps they didn't until they actually tried the traditional tree revamp and were unsatisfied with the results. Apparently reaction to an initial preview of the new trees was enough to steel their resolve to burn the system down and rebuild it from scratch.
In the short term, this will be a mess. We are probably no more than four months from the retail launch of the expansion, in a public, no-NDA closed beta. It is almost certain that the system will need some work at launch, and I'd imagine that Ghostcrawler and his team won't be getting much sleep during that time. In the long term, though, this change could have a huge positive impact on the game.
The fact is that a wide open system means that most of the options will be bad, and the few unexpected gems may be in line for balance nerfs. In exchange for that limited freedom, the developers can improve the experience for the subclasses that are left. The new system will also do a better job of scaling with future expansions, which might only add 2-3 additional points. Either way, this is one change that looks to live up to the Cataclysm name.