WoW Factor: Why can’t Blizzard stop messing with everything?

It’s funny to me that people had such an aggressive reaction to the changes coming to Hunter pets and damage formulas in Battle for Azeroth. The latter in particular should be both invisible and completely immaterial for actual play; the only real change is that they now use weapon damage on abilities which were previously disconnected from weapon damage, but these formulas have always taken into account, say, the difference between two-handers and dual-wielding options. The former is, at its core, an opportunity to make pet families relevant again after most of the pets of Legion were more or less difference in appearance only, which is a far cry from the days when your choice of pet was significant.

To make it clear if it’s remotely ambiguous: Yes, these are changes I support and ones I think are good for the game on a whole.

And yet all of this does prompt a pretty salient question about World of Warcraft because even if these are intelligent choices, the weapon damage issue has existed for ages now. The time for fussing about with Hunter pets was also ages ago. It’s a big change to functionality being tossed into the mix more or less out of the blue with no other prompting, and that raises the question that’s been relevant ever since Cataclysm rolled around: Why is it that Blizzard can’t stop messing with everything?

Heading into deeper waters.Obviously, abilities for a given class or spec are going to change over time. That’s inevitable. But in the case of WoW, it’s egregious. Sure, Final Fantasy XIV changed various class mechanics and abilities with the last expansion… but the only abilities that were actually removed were ones that people didn’t use or just made for button bloat. The gap in terms of balancing is insane.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people say “I don’t want to relearn (this spec) again, I just want to keep playing it.” And I really look at Cataclysm as the starting point for that. People didn’t talk about having to “relearn” their specs on the regular for The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King; there was some talk for the former expansion about some pretty big spec changes, but that was also in service of making hybrids able to actually play as hybrids, giving Enhancement dual wield, making Retribution work, and so forth.

Yet those big changes roll out with every expansion now, and it’s not just because of another remaking of the talent system. Legion in particular wildly shifted several existing specs, and while a lot of the results are pretty great (Enhancement needed and got a major redesign and Survival is a blast), there’s still the question of why it is every single expansion needs to rebuild classes from the ground up.

Heck, it makes it even more notable when a lot of specs don’t get that. Enhancement needed a major redesign in part because it hadn’t actually had one since Wrath of the Lich King; it had lost components piece by piece, and by the time Warlords of Draenor had rolled around it hadn’t actually gotten any new tools in ages and no longer bore any resemblance to the spec it had previously been. Which, I think, is part of the answer.

The usual explanation is that Blizzard is constantly going through high turnover (possible, but it’s still a uniquely Blizzard problem in terms of balance) or that the developers just feel the constant need to leave their marks on things. Except that a lot of these wild swings have happened under the gaze of the same head designers, meaning that they get the same amount of praise or blame. Nothing has actually changed in terms of leadership, yet the classes swing from place to place, same as ever.

So why? Well, maybe we can blame this on something that Cataclysm introduced: the idea that there are no systems that can’t be redesigned at every turn.

Obviously, the game’s first two expansions added and changed stuff. But at the end of the day, both of those expansions were still using the same talent trees and the same structures that had been in the game from the beginning. You can argue how well talent trees ever worked (I personally liked them, but there’s an argument to be made on both sides), but they were there, and they formed a foundation. Messing too much with the classes would require chipping away at that foundation, and that was the sort of essential change that didn’t sit well.

Cataclysm, though, saw a rethink. One that was seemingly based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was being said by players; a lot of players were asking, for example, why Enhancement had to wait to unlock Dual Wield at level 40 when it was so fundamental to the spec’s identity.

I really enjoy Retribution, but Holy Power has never added anything useful to the spec, honestly.The obvious reason, of course, was that putting it earlier made it easier to dip for, and that was a structural problem. This was a problem that could be addressed in other ways, of course, but the option that was picked was “let’s rewrite the whole spec system from the ground up, and then we can address this problem that way.”

Surprising? Not exactly; Blizzard has a long history of trying to solve problems in the most extreme ways rather than making nuanced changes to bring things in line. This one, however, has had a pretty big knock-on effect over the years. By establishing that the game’s foundations are up for change at any given time, it essentially means that the game has no foundation whatsoever. All that matters is inertia and what the developers feel like doing for a given expansion.

This is one of the reasons why the whole “class fantasy” was being pushed so hard for Legion, because at least that gives these classes some sort of foundational grounding again. Except, again, that can be yanked away at any time. I really enjoy Survival Hunter at this point, although it still has some issues, and I feel like it’s closer to the interesting part of the foundation that was established for the spec back at launch… but there are also lots of people who enjoyed Survival’s gameplay between Wrath and Legion. Once the foundation was torn out, there weren’t really many good options.

Add to that the fact that the developers seem to be far more concerned with how the class plays in the top end of raiding than with how the class feels along the way, and you wind up with a situation that combines the worst of all possible worlds. You have your abilities heavily frontloaded by the game, so you have most of your major buttons long before the level cap, making for an astonishing number of “empty” levels. In Legion particularly, you didn’t actually get any new abilities once you picked up your artifact. Similarly, those abilities aren’t actually paced out to teach you the class as you go; there’s not a subtle mechanical interplay people are going to see over time.

Specs only actually get full redesigns when things are getting so bad that the spec has lost much of anything interesting. Which is like the opposite of triage; instead of bringing things to a stable place, everything stays stagnant and loses tools until suddenly things lurch forward again.

It’s a rather odd state of affairs where we never really seem to have any feeling of consistency and reliable design, and it leads to people panicking and screaming about any changes because please, please, we don’t want to re-learn how to play our specs again. We want new toys to play with and new fun abilities, not another reworking of the spec from the top down.

And it’s going to be hard to fix. Because, again, the foundation got yanked out a while back. You can’t put that back once it’s gone; all you can do is try to convince people that you won’t remove this one like you did the last four.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Remember when the big expansion previews were all about the new abilities we’d get to play around with? I remember being super excited about the Paladin and Warrior previews back when The Burning Crusade was rolling around. That was fun.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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54 Comments on "WoW Factor: Why can’t Blizzard stop messing with everything?"

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Venomlicious
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Venomlicious

Because they are like Taco Bell. All old stuff just wrapped with a new fold or new wrapper

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Anthony Clark

The fact that they can’t leave working things alone is one of the reasons I left.

Good to see they’re still screwing things up. Still, no reason to return.

Estranged
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Estranged

They have to justify the expense of playing. Also, these changes require time to learn and bring more sub time.

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Dread Quixadhal

There’s two main reasons why Blizzard can’t stop messing with everything.

The first is their refusal to separate PvE and PvP content. I’m not saying gameplay, but rather underlying systems and stats. Nothing stops them from making separate PvE and PvP versions of every skill, and using the appropriate method based on the target being another player vs. an NPC. You make parallel stats so every piece of gear can have boosts to the PvE and PvP side that might be different. That way, you can freely rebalance ONE side without breaking the other.

The second is that they keep changing their minds about their target audience, instead of just staying true to the things that got them 12 million subscribers in the first place. Make a good game, players who like it will come and bring their friends. Don’t try to make a game to attract people.

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Ben Stone

Guessing you havent played in quite some time. PvP is. Totally separate to PvE. In fact aside from ilvl PvE stats mean nothing in PvP. You get given a set stat budget that only changes slightly woth ilvl. Also skills and talents operate differently in PvP. Like sub rogue stuns become a daze, lower cc durations etc.

Estranged
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Estranged

Ben, WoW just corrected this issue. Years behind other games.

borghive
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borghive

You nailed it. I’ve been saying this for years about Blizzard, they tried so hard to chase gamers that really didn’t like MMOs with all the QOL changes, that they have alienated a lot of their long time fans. It’s no wonder there is so much push for Classic these days.

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Cosmic Cleric

As far as I’m concerned, at this point, WoW class changes are a “slow-moving” ‘SWG NGE’ in disguise.

After what they did to my ten plus years primary class, now they are changing the only other class that I half way enjoyed (per a Preach video I just watched), so yeah, FFS, enough of this, I’m done.

Polyanna
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Polyanna

There’s still the question of why it is every single expansion needs to rebuild classes from the ground up.

Two things are worth noting here.

First, BFA is so far as we can tell not going to include rebuilding all classes from the ground up. There will tweaking and tuning, and one or two specs may get special attention or a big makeover. But on the whole they’re crossing the line more or less intact, or so it seems from everything we’ve heard so far.

Second, as far as the reason why “big changes” happen regularly, and why Blizzard is ok with that, I think the best one we can infer is that they view it as a sort of “skill reset” for players, to go hand in hand with the regular gear resets. Having those regular resets seems jarring, but the up side is that it means that all players, old and new, are put back on the same even footing at the start of an expansion, and it also leaves room for Blizzard to try out genuinely new and disruptive ideas from time to time, like new classes, new roles for certain specs, and different mechanics for progression and balancing.

Everyone has to relearn the game, at least a bit. Everyone has to regear, entirely. It puts everyone back at square one, and gives everyone the same chance to build up their skill and power again over the course of playing through the lifespan of a new expansion.

Building in regular severe disruptions like that actually is a core, fundamental design premise that is needed to ensure the health of any long lived competitive multiplayer game, according to Raph Koster. As he put it, “Systems that don’t destroy their kings on a regular basis end up destroying the kings and the citizenry.” Any system that doesn’t have big disruptive changes often enough will stagnate and die, and neither the game nor its player base will survive.

Also, keep in mind that the example we’re talking about in particular is a redesign of Hunter pets, and in particular eliminating the distinction between “tank” and “DPS” breeds, while also putting back distinct and desirable buffs for each pet family. That goes hand in hand with the only other notable big change that they’ve announced for classes in general, which is the return of unique “class utility” (a.k.a. raid buffs).

That’s two relatively modest changes in the grand scheme of things, and nothing like the wholesale up-ending of ALL specs that Legion brought with it. They also said that the changes to how specs feel and play and what they’re made of, if any, will be very limited compared with what happened in Legion.

So it seems Blizzard agrees that wholesale overhaul for all classes and specs is not something that should happen every expansion, and it’s not actually going to happen in BFA (compared to the state we’re in now). But I believe that they are on the same page with Koster, and that they accept the premise that some sort of big changes do need to happen every couple of years, for the long term health of the game, to keep the gameplay engaging and players engaged.

However, in BFA the big changes are going to come more from other new systems and mechanics and overall background changes like the Big Squish, conceptual overhaul of set bonuses, and new types of instances like Warfronts and Islands, instead of yet another class ability and talent tree overhaul.

So, if you want to know why, my guess is it’s as simple as that: Kings need to die, or the kingdom will die, and the peasants and everyone else with it.

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Michael18

Interesting point. I agree that player skill resets, that bring new/casual players on equal footing with veterans, would be a good thing, but I doubt that major class changes are an effective means to this end.

Experienced players will adapt to a new class design far quicker than casual players or players that only play the game on and off. And they will have a wider range of styles they can adapt to, at all, whereas for less experienced / casual players there’s always a (greater) risk that they just can’t cope with the new style of a class they previously liked.

So, I’d say in the best case class changes do not help much in terms of resetting player skill, but they might actually make casuals fall back even further.

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Cosmic Cleric

I think you are misunderstanding what Raph was talking about.

It’s been a while since I read that article, so I could be wrong, but the impression I got from his blog post was that he was talking about the stateness of the in-game world, moreso that radical class design changes. Two very different things.

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Serrenity

In this case, there isn’t a functional difference. Radical class design changes have dramatic, marked changes in state in the in-game world. Those on ‘top’ tend to cycle because of class changes (often because they don’t like the new way of things) and it opens it up for new people to jump in.

In mild support of your argument, if this was the ONLY thing they were doing, I think that it would be a different story, but I think that this is just one of the changes they make on a regular basis to keep the churn throughout the game. Class changes being ‘a’ contributing factor instead of the ‘the’ contributing factor makes a lot more sense.

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Cosmic Cleric

In this case, there isn’t a functional difference.

I probably didn’t explain myself enough, as there’s a huge difference between the two.

By in-game state I meant more of Raph meant, who owns that castle, what controls the chokepoint, the in-world state of being that players (virtually) “live” in.

Class changes is allot more about the game mechanics of how you manipulate your avatar, regardless of where they are in the in-game world.

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Paragon Lost

Personally I’m disgusted that Blizzard goes out of its way to reinvent the wheel every freaking expansion and in attempting to do so makes everything mean nothing… repeatedly.

So much so that this is the first expansion that I am currently making no plans to buy. I’ve finally grown overly weary of them making everything you do with your characters mean absolutely nothing. They do the same thing with the game world, it’s history, it’s factions and its people, so at least they’re consistent with that.

taradyne
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taradyne

I went back to WoW after being gone for 3+ years and have to say, I’m really disappointed in the 4-button spec each class seems to have now. Gone are the days when you had to know your class to play well (if you didn’t use mods). Glad to see ret pally is back to being fun and feels kind of OP, but most of the other classes feel pretty gimped with so few available actions.

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Bruno Brito

Gone are the days when you had to know your class to play well (if you didn’t use mods)

Hum…debatable. Most Vanilla specs were one-button wonders, TBC and Wrath improved on that, but made a lot of them being reliant on procs, which is a shitty mechanic.

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Zora

Because the company’s current ambitions lie elsewhere and with the reality of an engine that is way past its prime, there is a solid chance they just cannot add -anything- without breaking it all.

Moving furniture around endlessly from under the players’ own butts is way easier a way to maintain an economically-sound impression that the game is “fresh” than actually engineering and adding new features. And box sales proves they can get away with it regardless.

You question your methods when the money stop rolling in, not a moment before.

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Daniel Reasor

I don’t believe that all change is unnecessary, but Blizzard must surely have data analytics showing that class changes drive a lot of their turnover. I don’t believe for a second that Hunter pets, for example, were broken and in need of fixing in Legion. Some changes are undoubtedly someone trying to make their mark on the property, or someone feeling as if they have to change something in order to justify their position with the company.

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Cosmic Cleric

While I would not necessarily disagree with you, 1) it could also be a matter of Blizzard just thinking their customer base is basically addicted (generally speaking, not literally (most of the time)), and that they can change what they want, or, 2) they are making changes to make WoW more appealing to future console-based customers.

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Zora

or someone feeling as if they have to change something in order to justify their position with the company.

Snarky as it may, what you described happens waaaay more often than people are willing to admit… generally out of politeness.