Class balance revelations

Late breaking edit: Hell has frozen over. Blizz CM Ornyx has opened a forum thread soliciting comments on hunter changes. (Also one on Warlock changes, I think.) Head over there and make your opinions known. I am not going to go into why Blizz has ignored hunter pleas for months, and now wants to hear them again, as if this is news to them…. It may all come to nothing, but we should still give it a try.

During the recent Gamescom 2016, WoW Assistant Game Director Ion “Watcher” Hazzikostas granted some in-depth interviews, covering most aspects of Legion. MMO-C has posted videos and text summaries of them:

I’ve written some of my impressions from these so far, and today I’d like to take up the subject of class balance. Watcher gave us what is, I think, the most insight we have yet had on the tumultuous upheavals for many classes in Legion. This is not to say he went so far as to be actually forthcoming on the subject, but he at least dropped a couple of tidbits that help us to put the changes into some context.

Pruning. That dreaded word. After spending a couple of expansions focusing on (mostly) adding to class abilities, Blizz reversed course in WoD and Legion and embarked on a program of cutting the very abilities they had added, plus a few more. In some cases, they pruned a class spec but then added in some features that resulted in a more complex and thus interesting play style — combat/outlaw rogue is an example (just my opinion, those of you who main a rogue may disagree). In other cases, they pruned a spec and did not add in anything else, resulting in something an above-average carrot could easily play — of course the prime example of this is BM hunter. Then, of course, there were some classes and specs that, while not escaping all change, were pretty much left alone, at least in Legion — mages, of course, because they are untouchable, and druids come to mind.

In the Fatboss interview, Watcher discussed the Great Pruning Massacres of WoD and Legion at some length, and I found his comments to be somewhat of a mixed message, but ultimately unsettling. On the one hand he said that adding abilities to classes, as happened prior to WoD, was a bad thing because it resulted in “homogeneous” classes, such that the only thing a group leader would need to look for would be, for example, a “ranged DPS”. On the other hand, he said that one reason to prune anything, like a plant in your garden, is to give it room to grow, implying that eventually Blizz will return to adding new abilities back in to classes.

The best interpretation I can come up with for this is that Blizz has abandoned the concept of “Bring the player, not the class”. Watcher’s comments seem to point to a goal of making every class — no, make that “every spec” — fit a specific niche, and any eventual “un-pruning” will add in certain niche abilities. He said that a desirable goal is for a raid leader to seek out “a good hunter” rather than a good ranged DPS. (He ignored the fact that hunters are now for all practical purposes 3 different classes, and it makes a pretty big difference which spec is included in a raid. But then, as I have said before, no one at Blizz pays much attention to hunters any more except as a convenient stereotype.)

Well. Talk about your complete philosophical turnarounds. As it is a virtual certainty that Blizz will design raid bosses and wings with heavy emphasis on specific types of mechanics, it would seem we are destined to return to the days of selecting raid members on the basis of spec first, skill second.

The good news is that this will not significantly impact most guild raiding, because Normal and Heroic raids are flex, so it is relatively easy to accommodate one or two less-than-optimal specs for any given boss. Also, most casual or semi-casual guilds worth their salt do not bench competent players in order to stack a raid with “the best” specs for the fight.

The bad news is that this will probably have the biggest negative impact on damage dealers who rely on the Premade Group Finder for their raiding, especially those specs that are perceived as low-performing or as not bringing anything of value to the group. (Looking at you, all you BM hunters out there.) Now, in addition to having to meet often-ridiculous gear level requirements, a potential pug DPS will also have to be an approved spec to qualify. This is not encouraging for anyone whose spec appears at the bottom of some of the sim lists.

Side rant on spec “uniqueness”: I realize that hybrid classes have had to deal with group role pickiness for quite some time, which is somewhat akin to the upcoming spec preferences for DPS. But for the most part this has worked in favor of hybrid classes. For one thing, they have the option of queuing for roles in demand, such as healer or tank, which usually grants them expedited acceptance if they meet the other group requirements. And they have the added beneficial option of setting their loot spec to whichever spec they want to gear up. So, for example, if a balance/resto druid is trying to gear up their moonkin, they can still get into a pug as a healer and get moonkin gear. That is not true for the so-called “pure” DPS classes. Yes, they can “select” a loot spec but it makes absolutely zero difference in the gear they get, since primary stat and gear type is all that is considered. (Not even sure why loot spec is an option for pure DPS players, it seems kind of like the faux thermostat in offices that give workers the illusion of temperature control but in reality the thing is not even hooked up.)

I predict what we will see for the Premade Group Finder is this situation: eventually Blizz will change the queue filters to reflect a player’s spec as well as class when they apply, thereby relieving the group leader of having to ask which spec potential damage dealers are, since specs are now so differentiated. I can’t imagine most group leaders, for example, just blindly accepting a hunter — even with high gear level — without knowing at least if he is melee or ranged. So it is almost inevitable that the Group Finder will sooner or later start to reflect a player’s spec (not just role selection). For pure damage dealers, this further handicaps them, because they will then have the disadvantages of a hybrid class (sorry, we need a different spec) without the compensation of being able to queue and play with the “desired” spec and still get gear for their main spec — because Blizz considers all pure DPS gear to be equal across a class.

It is high time that Blizz consider secondary stats the same as they consider primary ones (like agility, strength, etc.), and allow pure DPS players to select a loot spec that actually gives them a reasonable chance at some optimal gear. If Blizz insists on making every spec “unique” and conforming to a “spec fantasy”, then by golly they need to hold up their end, too, and configure gear tables to conform to all these unique specs. We have heard the party line now for some time that secondary stats really are not all that important, not to worry our poor little heads about it, but that is just not true. Secondary stats have a very noticeable impact on player performance, and the inability to reliably loot gear appropriate to one’s spec is just sloppy design.

What about current class imbalances? Hazzikostas as much as admitted that classes and specs are not well balanced, that there are some clear winners and losers. But he also said that, due to the overwhelming importance of artifact weapons and the time that needs to be invested in them, Blizz will not be correcting these known imbalances any time soon. When or if they decide to do a better job of balancing, he indicated it would be done via extensions to artifact abilities. In other words, if you were a lottery winner and your spec currently rules, you can expect it to continue to do so, possibly ruling a tad bit less but ruling nevertheless. On the other hand, if your spec currently stinks, you can rely on it continuing to stink for the foreseeable future. Sucks to be you…

This is disappointing, and yet another example of Blizz’s new Commitment to Exellence Good Enough. The major redesign they opted to do for classes in Legion was a complex, tedious undertaking, with predicably major problems of balance both within each class and across all classes. It’s not like they haven’t done this before, not like they don’t have experience with it. But they went ahead with it anyway, failed to devote sufficient resources to follow it through, suddenly “realized” they could not continue to adjust the imbalances because of their other decision to make every spec dependent on a single piece of gear, ran out of time before the launch, and so threw up their hands and called it done.

Some final thoughts.  Based on the information we got from the Gamescom interviews, combined with the class and spec changes we have seen, I am beginning to think it is time for Blizz to admit that the designation of class is less important than the designation of spec, and to start supporting players on that basis. That means redesigning loot tables as well as player designation filters for mechanisms such as Group Finder. It also means much more balancing effort at the spec level, and much more attention to the interplay of gear, talents, and abilities for every spec.

Is this vastly more complex than designing and balancing for class? Yes, but it is a complexity problem of Blizz’s own making. As far as I know, players were not clamoring to make every spec unique and do yet another complete redesign, were not petitioning to get rid of the “Bring the player, not the spec” philosophy. Players were not demanding a different, unique, high-maintenance, play-determining weapon for every spec in the game. Those were internal Blizz decisions, made for who knows what reasons. But having embarked upon this course, it seems like the approach should be to embrace it completely, not half-assed. You want to get rid of homogeneity? Fine, but have the professionalism to see it through, don’t get three-quarters of the way there then call it “too hard” and abandon it.

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.

7 Responses to Class balance revelations

  1. demonnick says:

    Well Written. I do find it rather strange that Blizzard seems to be promoting player dedication to a specific class/spec through the investment of time in the artifact weapon, but then states that they want each raid group to focus on recruiting a specific class/spec rather than a “good player” to their ranks. This system seems to me like its really going to leave the people who chose a non-optimal spec out to dry when it comes to raiding (unless of course the artifact weapon doesn’t take as long as I think it will). I think in order for this type of system to work they are going to need to invest a lot more time into balancing on a regular basis and in general spend an equal amount of time testing each class for raid dps and utility (haha like that will ever actually happen)…

    On another note, yet another hotfix passes by and Blizzard still has not fixed the completely broken hunter ability known as “Bursting Shot” (the knockback is not working at all and the daze only less than half the time). There’s not even an acknowledgement that its not working as intended, despite every single hunter streamer I know off complaining about it. I mean seriously, they are tuning things like…sound files, before fixing an ability that is completely necessary for a spec to function in PvP. What…the…#?*!%

    • Fiannor says:

      On the contrary for the artifact weapon — Watcher’s comments strongly implied that every patch in Legion will bring an extension to the artifact weapon, which I took to mean it will never be “completed”. Thus, even if you want to dual spec, you will always be in the position of deciding whether to seek to max your primary spec or add to your secondary one.

      I agree that people who have chosen to play one of the “lesser” specs will be left out in the cold, depending on what they want to do for end game content. As I said, I don’t think it will matter much for most casual or semi-casual raiders on a regular team, but there are groups for whom it will matter quite a bit — high end raiders and those who usually pug for their raids, for example. Also, selection of spec will be extremely important for PvP-ers — PvP specs have always mattered, but I think Legion will make the choice even more critical for certain classes.

      Disappointing to hear about Bursting Shot, but like I wrote about a few days ago, Blizz is willing to change only those hunter things that are quick and easy fixes, they are clearly not interested in putting forth the effort to fix the big hunter problems. Hunters are the throwaway class now.

  2. JC Sway says:

    I’m not sure why you were “looking at all the BM hunters out there.” If we are not getting invites or perceived as bad, I’m not experiencing it. We bring mobility, great AoE, and solid single target. And BL/Hero if needed. And a battle res if needed. Not sure what else a raid leader would want from a ranged spec.

    • Fiannor says:

      Yes, you are probably right, at least for now. It was more of an unfortunate example, but I was trying not to offend anyone, so I used BM because I myself intend to main that spec for Legion.

      Still, when it comes to hunters, many group leaders think they know all there is to know about them, since they have the reputation of being the easiest spec to play, the one all the kids start out on because there are these really cute pets. And the changes to BM have been widely advertised — not without justification — as resulting in a spec even more simplistic than it was in WoD. (Read: Not for serious players.) Thus, when some (not all) group leaders perceive a need for “a hunter” in Legion, I do think there will be a lot of “MM only” or “SV only” restrictions in the group advert, simply because of this BM rep, and also because specifying spec will become almost required for hunters due to the melee/ranged difference, so if you are specifying why not ask for the perceived top-damaging?

      There is also the self-licking ice cream cone phenomenon that we see every new expansion and major patch, where the top tier players gravitate towards the spec that gives them the extra 1-2% edge they need to be competitive. Then the damage listings get skewed to that spec, because excellent players are playing it and thus the damage numbers grow (because very skilled players are working it), leading second tier and casual players to adopt the spec “because the numbers are way higher than that other spec”. Even though the reality is that there may be only a small difference, the perception quickly becomes something along the lines of “MM is the only competitive hunter spec” — at least that is what many players unwilling to delve into logic tend to think.

      The other reality is that group leaders in Group Finder really have very few ways to efficiently seek out competent players, other than to use gross generalizations such as gear level, achievements like AoTC, and in some cases top-charting specs. They may not actually believe that all MM hunters, for example, are better than all BM hunters, but it is a coarse filter that is available to them, and they may feel it ups the odds of getting a decent player.

      I actually did a small experiment around the first of the year, where I played one of my hunters as SV and queued for some premade groups. I had a very decent gear level along with the ring and AoTC, and I got accepted to 3 groups doing Normal HFC (none of which specified any minimum DPS numbers). In every instance I got booted as soon as they discovered I was playing SV — even though my damage numbers were never the worst in the group. One group leader at least whispered me and asked if I had an alternate spec I was willing to switch to, and when I said I would rather not, I got very politely asked to leave, but the other two just kicked me no questions asked. The perception seemed to be that I couldn’t possibly know anything about hunters, since I was playing a spec that was clearly in the toilet. So yes, specs can matter.

      Anyway, sorry for the wall of text, but your comment really made me examine my thinking on this, so thank you for that. I am going to play a BM hunter as a main in Legion, no matter what the damage meters may say. I almost never pug anything, and I am in a great guild, so I do not anticipate my spec selection to have much if any adverse effect on my end game opportunities. However, I maintain that some players will in fact be negatively affected because there will remain a noticeable performance-meter gap between their chosen spec and the “preferred” one. This is where failure to balance across classes and specs becomes a problem: when the gaps become too great. I think that is where we currently are with class balancing, and where we will remain for quite a while.

      • JC Sway says:

        I guess I missed that you were referring to the group finder. It could be a great tool, but as you described, it’s a hard place to get an invite sometimes. I just approach that with an “it’s their loss” mentality.

  3. I wonder, sometimes, just how big a presence Ghostcrawler was in Blizzard. The pride of the designers going in the opposite direction (the bring the player discussion) of what we’ve enjoyed for many years has to be simply pride. I can’t see any other motive.

    • Fiannor says:

      I have often wondered the same thing. It does seem that they are making huge changes just for the sake of change, not thinking them out in terms of where they really want the game to go. I have long thought that many of the changes we see stem from devs needing to pad their resumes for their next job, not from a cohesive vision of the game. 😋