Thursday, July 8, 2010

WoW To Replace 10 Classes With 30 Subclasses

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.


  1. Which means we will never see a sheatheadin or a wiseadin or a shockadin again.

    Blizzard never understood that making the 51 point talents generally spec making is important, but that the flexibility of allowing these was a nice addition. None of these builds was ever truly broken (sheathe was awesome single target, wise could spam HL forever, and shock was a moderate damage spec) in any way however they were interesting in specific fights. We lose a lot by not being 10 classes but rather 30 subclasses...

  2. This will murder split specs, such as frost-fire mages. It will also make the game a lot more friendly to new players. Finally, it will give Blizzard a lot more freedom to make each of the specialization lines tempting. They won't have to worry about a split spec combining strong abilities from two different lines, since it will be mechanically impossible.

    Don't know whether I will be getting Cataclysm at this point. But I would have enjoyed messing around with the new talent changes. Sounds very positive to me.

  3. I don't like it for how I play, but it certainly does streamline things a fair bit.

    I like the stated goals of making classes feel more like their potential earlier, but I really despise being locked into a single tree. If I want to gimp myself by dabbling in different trees that should be my choice.

    On the other hand, if they offer infinite free respecs in any town like Guild Wars, I'll cut 'em some slack.

  4. I don't like it for how I play, but it certainly does streamline things a fair bit.

    I like the stated goals of making classes feel more like their potential earlier, but I really despise being locked into a single tree. If I want to gimp myself by dabbling in different trees that should be my choice.

    On the other hand, if they offer infinite free respecs in any town like Guild Wars, I'll cut 'em some slack.

  5. While it is a quite dramatic change, it is still no fundamental change, not a real Cataclysm.

    Balance - for what? For their underdeveloped PvP? For the damage and healing meters in PvE?

    Does it add that much to the game?

    The neverending balance changes in GW were so damn interesting for me when I was still very actively playing the game, when I was no longer that much invested they became totally meaningless, and this is what this change is actually to the new player. Not an improvement, he won't even notice.

    The game is not adding anything fundamentally new, it is just doing things very different now while at its core still staying what it always was, trinity based tank and spank.

    And SWTOR and WoW sound again so similar - recently read about the class mechanics in SWTOR.

  6. Sounds pretty interesting really.

  7. While the current system allows you to put points anywhere you like, the choice was really an illusion. Every decient player knows that there are only a handful of viable builds for each class. The devs have even admitted as such in their blue posts. They even admitted that they like to balance around you're 51 point talent.

    There was a huge difference in power between people who went onto sites like Elitist Jersks to find approprate builds, and those who tried to do everything in game. Most endgame viable specs had mostly manditory talents with about 5 optional talents. The only problem is that there's nothing in game that told players that they had to spec a certian way, or perform poorly and get laughed at by their fellow players.

    We already had 30 subclasses. This change just formalizes what everyone already knew. It turned something that was de facto into somehing that was dejure.

  8. This is a huge change for leveling. This really has me excited and I may just have to level another 10 toons to the level cap when cataclysm comes out. Currently the talent trees make no sense till are more than halfway through the game.

    I mean look at ret paladins. You can decide you want to level as a ret paladin... but you are going to put your first 5 points in holy and next 5 in str because the ret tree offers absolutely nothing early on. Being able to hit level 10 and bam push a button that puts you on the path of a ret paladin is awesome.

    This change won't change the end game at all but will dynamically increase the fun of leveling.

    Now shockadin or other high hybrid specs will go away... but frostfire specs will still be in the game.

    I mean... a level 80 frost fire spec is roughly 51 points in fire and 20 points in frost. Where as a fireball spec is 51 pts in fire 20 pts in arcane (roughly).

  9. Heh, this is the first blog I've read about the new talent changes!

    Personally, as someone who will be leveling a brand new character once Cataclysm comes around (Gobbo something-or-other), I see this change as positive.

    As one of the earlier commentors already mentioned, there really only were a handful of viable specs in the old system even though it appeared more open and free.

    The talent system really wasn't designed from the outset with their expansion model in mind. It just wasn't scalable. Looks like they might now have it under control.

  10. "Every decient player knows that there are only a handful of viable builds for each class."

    No, most players DON'T know this. Newer players are horrible to group with (Dungeon Finder) because they can't be expected to have the knowledge of someone who has played at endgame.

    When I started playing, I had no idea what talents to choose so I naturally chose one tree and stuck with it.

    Hopefully the new talent trees will have some more interestin, but viable options for newer players.

    Endgame players pretty much only mess with a few talent points anyway.

  11. Shockadins have been dead since WotLK beta, when the SP coefficient on paladin judgments was seriously nerfed.

    They say they're adding more offensive oomph to healers in Cataclysm, which may help. I guess they feel they can do this because healer mana is going to be so much more an issue, so it won't break PvP as much.


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