I have lately been doing some survey reading on principles of MMO game development, and I ran across an item that really struck a chord with me. It was from a blog called Tough Love Critic, in a piece on principles for MMO balance:
STEADY CHANGE IS OKAY, SEA CHANGES AREN’T
Metas get stale, especially if they’re bad metas that take excitement, flexibility, agency, or all of the above from players. But that doesn’t mean that when a meta needs to change the patch notes should rival a doctoral dissertation each and every time.
Huge changes might drastically change the meta, but just as easily it can invalidate a player’s favorite build, expensive gear, or in worse cases their entire class. If the only balance patches that happen change everything, then players dread changes rather than look forward to them.
Steady, consistent changes, tweaking here and there, work much better over time. The meta steadily shifts away from its previous moorings, allowing for a hybrid lake where new builds and old builds vie for dominance.
Caveat: Sometimes large changes are necessary because a lot of other aspects of a game are changing as well, but they should never be a constant.
Now, before I talk a little bit more about this quote, let me point out that in almost anything you read about MMO design, World of Warcraft jumps out as a textbook example for proper application of gaming principles. In fact, in some instances, the principles were actually deduced from analysis of WoW. The game, even today, remains the gold standard for nearly every aspect of MMOs.
But the reason I was so taken with the quote above is that I think this is where Blizz has made a big mistake. Over the past couple of expansions they have been pushing the pendulum of change into ever-widening arcs, particularly in areas most sensitive to players, and they are either unwilling or unable to slow it back to a nice steady tick. Many of the most controversial changes over the two years have in fact been controversial simply because they were so drastic and so sudden, whereas had they been implemented more slowly they would have been more easily accepted.
Sometimes, as in the example of Survival hunters, there has been a series of these sea changes coming one on the heels of the other. At the start of WoD, the spec was terrible, then in patch 6.1 it became pretty much overpowered, then in patch 6.2 it became unplayable, then in patch 7.0.3 it became a completely different spec as melee. That, my friends, is change that is too drastic too often. And indeed the resulting perception for many SV players was exactly as described in the quote.
As a side note, I think Blizz may actually have learned their lesson on drastic change in one area: flying. They saw what happened when they wanted to suddenly remove it from the game for all new areas, so they backed off. Backed off, but I still think that is their end goal. In Legion, it will be delayed for months, almost certainly for a year or more. My bet is that in the next expansion it will be delayed even longer, possibly until the last patch. After that, if there is an “after that”, I think it is a better than even chance that it will be effectively removed from the game for all new areas. Incremental change, not drastic change. It is the frog in the pot of water being gradually brought to a boil.
New expansions and new patches bring changes, that is a given. It is how MMOs evolve and grow. Changes in a game should be fun and exciting and challenging. There are parts of the game where people welcome change, and there are parts of the game where players are much more resistant to change. People enjoy content changes, quality of life changes, environmental/art changes. But people are much more conservative when it comes to areas of the game they have an emotional investment in, for example the essence of their game persona — class and spec.
And this is where I think Blizz has erred. They have insisted on making changes that are not only drastic but continual to classes and specs, to the very core of players’ self-identification. Rather than have a class evolve over the course of a couple of expansions, they have opted to swing them from one extreme to the other. They have failed to realize that these changes really, really matter to players, they are not just another game mechanic. (It makes me wonder if the real reason for such changes is that it helps to flesh out dev resumes — “Conceived of and implemented major changes to three character classes in World of Warcraft, resulting in …. bla bla bla … increased corporate revenue…bla bla bla…certificate of achievement…bla bla bla”)
For all the protestations that the devs are passionate about the game, I see no indication whatsoever that they are passionate about any class or spec. Yes, one dev may appreciate one set of mechanics over another, but do any of them truly love being, say, a hunter or a priest or a warlock? I don’t know, but I do know that if they had the same kind of persona investment in a class/spec that many players have, they would not treat them as they have for last couple of years. They would be more respectful of player-evolved fantasies for their spec and less eager to impose a Blizz-approved fantasy du jour.
The weekend beckons.