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.

Wait, what??

Yesterday I posted a few thoughts about Blizzard’s treatment of the hunter class and DPS balance in general, and expressed my faith in them that eventually they would get it all sorted out. Just a few short hours later we were treated to some of the most bizarrely reasoned hot fixes in recent history. It’s kind of like bragging to your visiting Aunt Bessie about your newly adopted dog — how well behaved he is — and then he pees on her shoe.

Blizz — and I mean this in the most constructive possible way — WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? 

First we get the nerfs to MM hunters, no big surprise there, we all expected it, and no one can be too upset by them. But then, for some unfathomable reason, they threw in a nerf to BM. What?? BM is the lowest performing hunter spec currently, and in fact is near the bottom on the overall DPS charts as well. It’s even lower than SV, which was gutted at the start of this xpac. Yet Blizz saw fit to take 10% off Kill Shot, an integral part to what has become pretty puny burst DPS, if it can even count as burst since you can only use it when the target is below 20% health anyway.

Now, realistically, a 10% nerf to KS in and of itself is not a catastrophe, many BM hunters will probably not even notice. But why make the change at all for an already low performing spec? The only answer I can come up with is laziness combined with utter disregard for the affected player base. Clearly the nerf target was MM, and BM just happened to be collateral damage.

Blizz staff meeting:

Manager: OMG! Marksman hunters are topping the DPS charts! We must act immediately! What can we do?

Staff developer: Well, it’s a bit complicated to nerf only marksman, but we could *techno babble techno babble*. That might take a few days. Or we could just do an across the board whack on Kill Shot. That would affect BM also, so that might not be the best solution though.

Manager: I like it! It’s quick, easy, and I understand it. No worries on BM, it’s already so bad that a few more cuts isn’t going to make a big difference. OK, let’s do it!

As I have said before, there really is no one in upper management at Blizz looking at the big picture. If there were, maybe they might realize the message this sends to hunters: “We’ve pretty much written off BM for the time being, having already written off SV. We are much more concerned that our Frankenstein we’ve created by perverting the basic hunter play style stops terrorizing the villagers by cranking out huge DPS. Can’t have that!”

The other inexplicable action in yesterday’s hot foxes was the whole snafu over the Everburning Candle trinket. And I quote:

With regard to developer comments made yesterday during the Final Boss podcast interview, we understand changing our minds about not adjusting this item may be frustrating. At the time, we absolutely meant that we were okay with it being over-budget in terms of what it provides (reference the unchanged Intellect). However, when designers took a closer look at the item this morning, they realized that the mana being granted was excessive to the point that it risked undermining healer and encounter balance, and creating a world where healers with the Everburning Candle would play a different game with respect to mana longevity than those without.

Recall that the actual dev comment during the Final Boss interview was that players would be safe buying the trinket, as even though it was overpowered they felt changing the stats at this point would be unfair to those who had already bought it.

Now, I personally cannot imagine ever buying a piece of gear for 250k gold. But I get that there are players out there for whom that much gold is the same as me spending 70g on a flask.

There is a business principle here. Namely, when a reputable company makes a public commitment, they honor it. Maybe it was a mistake to make the commitment, maybe the dev misspoke or was assuming authority he did not have,  no matter. Your company representative promised it, you follow through on it. Period. Deal with the employee internally, ramp up your legal prep for anyone appearing publicly, whatever. But meanwhile you do what your official rep said you were going to do. If for some reason that is impossible, then you do the next best thing and make it right for the customers affected. For example, if you paid gold for the trinket, you will get an in game gold adjustment, or the choice to return the trinket for a full refund.

Q: What is the difference between the Cub Scouts and Blizzard? A: The Cub Scouts have adult leaders.

Blizzard, you are a large international company, with millions and millions of customers. When will you start acting like it?