Wanted: Class balance dev team

UPDATE EDIT: The June 25 hotfix announced several hours after I posted this indicates that the Improved Focus Fire bug will be fixed. It is listed as a “Hotfix in testing,” which is Blizz’s way of saying “Okay, okay, we’re working on it.” This in my opinion qualifies as improved player communication on their part, which is good. But that doesn’t change my opinion of the class balance development process.

What started me thinking about today’s subject is a post over at The Thrill of the Wild. In his usual meticulous method, Del irium has documented a HUGE bug in the way Focus Fire works — or more precisely doesn’t work — for Beastmastery hunters. You can read the post yourself for the particulars, but the bottom line is that the essential damage producing mechanic for BM, the part that allows skilled players to be rewarded for good execution, might as well not even exist. It is like that dummy thermostat in the office that allows employees to think they are controlling the temperature but in fact it is not even hooked up.

Let’s assume this is indeed a bug and sooner or later will be fixed. (Although honestly I think it is about 50-50 that it will be fixed any time soon.) Think about it. How in hell did such a gigantic bug make it through development, through in-house testing, through the PTR, and into live, AND NO ONE AT BLIZZ NOTICED? So much for their claim that they carefully scrutinize all the numbers and results from the PTR. Is there zero quality control anywhere in their dev process? Who is the person in charge of final approval for hunter class mechanics, and how did he let something like this slip through?

(Edit: See above edit regarding this.) And while we’re at it, how is it that they are not jumping through their butts now to get it fixed? Check out the patch and hotfix notes. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I feel like I am at a party and everyone is pointing and gasping at the fecal matter floating in the punchbowl, and the hosts are smiling vaguely, and saying “Hmmm? What? Yes, it’s fruit punch, we made it ourselves. Might need more ice, though.”

This huge blunder follows hard on the heels of the apparently intended gutting of SV as a viable hunter spec, and if the BM bug is not fixed, it means that MM is now the only playable spec for any hunter wishing to raid. And I am not talking just about top tier raid teams, I mean any raid team. SV was nerfed greatly at the start of WoD, but I stuck with it then because I was raiding with a “semi-casual” raid team, and I could make the spec work by improving my execution and diligently gearing for multistrike. But this is different. No amount of skill or practice or gearing can make SV a responsible choice for any raid team in 6.2. And now, apparently the same for BM.

Anyway, as much as I would love to continue to rant about the sad state of hunters in this patch, that is not really the point of this post. (Don’t think I don’t hear you all saying “Well get to the point, then, Fi.”) Here it is:

Something is very wrong with Blizz’s whole class balance development system. For this entire expansion, it has just felt like it’s being done by Congressional committee, not by what is supposed to be a world-class game development team.

Nearly every class in this expansion has legitimate, serious structural problems with it. I don’t play every class, so I can’t tell you what the problems are, but I read notes and various class blogs and I know that most have them. I am not talking about the inevitable glitches and annoyances and oopsies that crop up in any system this complex, I am talking about baseline design problems.

More ominously, some designs work for a single class, but they undermine the meta-class balance system, such that team performance suffers.The whole absorb mechanism for disc priests is an excellent example of this.

I am not claiming it is easy to achieve class balance for individual specs and classes, plus for team integration, plus for both PvE and PvP, plus add in a requirement to maintain a unique class and spec “feel.”Far from it. It is vastly complex. But that is Blizz’s job. They are supposedly experts at it. Lately, though, they are doing no better than a couple guys at a bar drawing out systems on a napkin.

The hunter BM bug highlights this. There is simply no way an error of this magnitude should have ever made it out of alpha testing, much less to live deployment. Add this to Watcher’s admission that they can’t fix either the disc priest problem or the demo lock problem, and it basically tells me that the class balance dev team is dysfunctional if not completely unfunctional. Obviously, an outsider cannot diagnose the roots of this problem, but it is a serious one. Maybe the problem is a project management one, maybe it is a low-level dev skill problem, maybe it is an overall lack of class passion and vision, maybe Blizz is as bad at internal communication as they are at external, but whatever it is, it needs to be diagnosed and fixed.

Of all the many parts that make up a game like WoW, possibly the most fundamental one is the set of actions that govern a player’s interaction with the virtual world. It is what draws players to a game, what makes them passionate about a certain class, what challenges them to get better at their execution, what provides the intellectual reward for playing well, what gives them that lizard-brain YEEHAW! moment when they have done everything perfectly. As important as content and artwork and raid tiers are, they mean nothing to players without the framework of the class they play. I submit to you that that is the very foundation of fun in the game.

How sad that Blizzard, a world leader — possible THE world leader — in MMO development, has lost the bubble on this.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

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