Balancing Ability Count and Change
The most recent Dev Water Cooler gave us something to ponder while we waited for the servers to come back up on Tuesday. In his post Number of Abilities, Ghostcrawler comments on the challenges Blizzard faces in balancing the number of spells, how often they change, how many cooldowns vs. rotational abilities, and more.
Class Design is Hard
His post reminds me that I as much as I love WOW, I wouldn’t want to be in charge of these design decisions. Not only do they have to balance classes in both PVE and PVP, but they have to balance the desire to fix weak or broken abilities with the fact that too much change can be unsettling for veterans. Every choice they make in regards to class abilities has pros and cons, and possible unintended effects. It is a complex ecosystem of variables that is very hard to wrap one’s mind around.
How many abilities should a max-level class have? This is something I ponder at least once a day and is a regular topic in nearly all of our class design meetings. – GC
I love these Dev Water Coolers due to the way they really give us an inside look into the decisions and ideas that get tossed around at Blizzard.
When patch notes come out, the QQ comes from every direction. Why didn’t I get my cooldown? OMG they nerfed Xspell! I wish they would make Y spell more useful. We as players all see things from our own limited perspective. There are many creative WOW community members that come up with fantastic solutions to the design problems that Blizzard faces, but even those solutions may not work in the grand scheme of things. Even in Blizzard’s own design meetings, each team member probably has a different view the design as a whole. I can’t imagine trying to reconcile those viewpoints and make a decision.
The dev team will make mistakes – not just software bugs, but inherent problems with their design choices. They are only human, and micromanaging every detail of a virtual world is hard. They don’t always know how players are going to interpret their decisions, or what nearly-impossible-to-predict combination of abilities, encounters, and interactions can make their choice a poor one. I love that the are willing to admit their mistakes, and that with recent expansions are able to revert or change design choices quickly.
How to Balance the Number of Abilities?
Ghostcrawler discusses in his post the number of spells in our spellbook – from rotational abilities to cooldowns. In vanilla, classes had less abilities and only a few were viable rotational spells – most were situational or just not used because they broken or weak. Some of the complexity came from Spell Ranks rather than number of abilities.
Over time Blizzard has added new abilities to classes, tried to give them more complex rotations, and tried to fix the ones that no one was using. This has resulted in our action bars bursting at the seams. Given that WOW will likely continue through another few expansions, the expectation is that Blizzard would add even more new abilities. So how much is too much?
I know that I much prefer playing classes with a lot of buttons to hit, but there is a point where it just becomes overwhelming. Does the fact that so many players use specialized devices like Naga Mice or gaming pads indicate that there are too many abilities? Or is that level of complexity necessary to make the game enjoyable? Good quality veteran players use many more spells in their toolkit than someone first learning their class. If we simplified things further, how would veteran players show their skill?
I think that their recent emphasis on revamping the leveling process and when classes gain abilities was a step in the right direction. If you learn your abilities gradually, and at a time that makes sense, it’s easier to weave them in and understand how they work together, and doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Looking at a Cat dps or Enhancement shaman rotation for the first time can be a bit terrifying, but if you learn as you level it is much more simple to grasp. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work when a player levels as one spec but switches to another at level cap.
Blizzard’s revamp of the talent tree and complete redesign of many classes also helped streamline abilities and make them meaningfully different. As always, theorycrafters will figure out what abilities pack the most punch and others will fall to the wayside. Blizzard has done a remarkable job on noticing abilities that they intended to be core, and buffing them – ala Chain Heal or Efflorescence. At the very least these underused spells are good for certain situations, and great players will pick up on that.
As for too many abilities on the action bars themselves? Yes there are many classes which have an overwhelming number of spells. Having a plethora abilities basically generates two problems: (1) It’s hard to remember all of them and know when to use them, and (2)The UI and computer input devices we use make it difficult to quickly use a large number of abilities.
The first piece just comes with time, practice, and truly knowing the in-and-outs of your class. The core rotational abilities should be obvious – and if they’re not then that is something Blizzard needs to work on. The rest can be woven in as familiarity is gained. You can play your class fairly effectively without knowing or using every situational ability – ie. you can probably get through heroic dungeons just fine.
The second piece is a much bigger challenge – running out of room on the action bar. There are so many cooldowns required for top DPS, damage reduction, and with the resurgence of CC we added a bunch of spells that we considered in Wrath to be PVP only. There are also AOE only rotational spells, or other situational abilities. This quickly adds up to the point that there is just no way with a standard keyboard to keybind all of the abilities I normally use. Many players have solved this with the use of UI modifications or specialized input hardware like gaming pads or many-button mice. Should this really be necessary to play the game effectively? From my standpoint, I love my Naga mouse and I love playing around with new UI configurations to maximize the number of abilities I can quickly reach. It’s a fun meta-game that I would be very disappointed to lose. On the other hand there are many players that hate this sort of thing and want the game to work as-is. It would be great if Blizzard could setup the UI with a greater number of keybinds labeled – more than one row perhaps. Tutorials on macro language in-game or on Battle.net would also be a nice addition.
Ghostcrawler mentions that roughly 4 is the number of core rotational abilities they’d like to see in a class. I think that’s about on-target. Add in AOE-focused abilities and you probably have a full single bar for typical DPS situations.
Veterans vs. New or Returning Players
Ghostcrawler also comments that it is very tough for new or returning players to handle the numerous abilities and changes to rotations. My ideal solution to this wouldn’t be to reduce complexity or remove abilities, but to indicate clearly the core abilities. This has gotten much better in recent times, but things get confusing when your final rotational abilities aren’t even available until you near max level. Groupings of abilities by “spec” in the spellbook are helpful, but sometimes they cross over, and key spells shared by multiple specs. The beginner tooltips actually do a great job of explaining spells to players and indicating that they are important, and even contain suggestions for other spells to use in combination.
When it comes to changing rotations or revamping classes, this can certainly be frustrating for returning players or those with lots of alts. Feeling like you have to re-learn the class often leaves players angry and they lose the desire to even log in on that character. But not changing rotations, especially between expansions can be harmful to players who feel like they’ve mastered their class. Hitting the same abilities year after year can get utterly boring. Part of why I stopped playing my rogue was simply that I was tired of the mechanics of the class, and disappointed that Blizzard didn’t freshen up the assassination rotation in an interesting or challenging way. The addition of Backstab just wasn’t different enough for me. I know this was because rogues were actually in a good place and Blizzard didn’t want to break a good thing, but it was still the primary cause of my rogue’s abandonment.
Blizzard also hasn’t really shied away from changing something they think is broken, even if it’s been left untouched for years. This can come as a painful surprise (such as the poor druids who are still bitter from their loss of Tree form, or ferals shifting out of roots), but it is a good strategy.
I love Blizzard’s push towards proc-based dynamic rotations. Having a static set of abilities to hit in order can lead to an incredibly dull experience. The new holy power ret pally mechanics make me want to level my little paladin. The shaman lava surge proc makes elemental a truly interesting spec. These types of rotations have their challenges on movement heavy fights, however, when the inability to react to a proc can drastically reduce DPS output. Everything Blizzard does has consequences that may not be obviously apparent. Tweak one little thing, and somewhere else things fall apart. The PTRs help this to some extent, but they do not represent the scale or variety of players on the live realms.
Cooldown abilities such as damage reduction or DPS boosts add a ton of flavor to a class or spec. From Spirit Wolves to Anti-Magic Shell, these abilities bring in some of that awesome-factor that is truly vital to making the game fun. Players may complain that utility abilities like Smoke Bomb are so very situational to that they are near useless in PVE, but if Blizzard took them away people would be screaming.
TLDR: Class design is hard. Blizzard has continued to make forward progress in my opinion, and they should continue to streamline classes by making mechanics more meaningful, but pruning the number of abilities isn’t a road I’d like them to head down.