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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.