WoW Factor: Excitement and trepidation about World of Warcraft bringing back talent trees

A journey already taken.

So you probably don’t need me to tell you at this point that I’m looking forward to having talent trees back in World of Warcraft, if for no other reason than the simple fact that I’ve been saying that for ages and thus it isn’t a particular surprise. I’ve been agitating for a return to talent trees in some form pretty much since Mists of Pandaria got rid of them. Now they’re actually coming back in Dragonflight, and I’m happy about that.

And I also have good reason to not be happy about it, too.

The thing about this particular development is that while it is a good thing, the fact that once talent trees got yanked out of the game meant the taboo was broken and nothing had to remain permanent ever again. So while this re-introduction is a good thing and I want to be excited about it and explain that excitement, I also think it’s important to note that there are problems just the same. Even as there’s reason to hope, there’s reason to be cautious.

Let’s start with the positives, first and foremost. Having talent trees back in retail WoW is a net win because it’s something people have wanted back for a long time. And part of the reason why is something that the game has increasingly lost sight of over the years: the power of incremental rewards.

You could quite convincingly make a case (and people have) that in the final assessment, talent trees are kind of irrelevant because people are going to pick most of the same talents every time. Load up an old talent calculator and it’s not even hard to see at a glance. If you want to tank as a Frost Death Knight in Wrath of the Lich King, there are a lot of pretty obvious talents to take, and in the places where you don’t have obvious defensive choices there are obvious huge utility picks.

This is, at its core, the philosophy behind “screw talent trees, just make the vital abilities passives you get naturally and just go all-in from the start.” But that also misses something that’s a bit inconsequential at a glance but means quite a bit in play. Sure, that 25% increased damage for your core abilities is going to be a must-pick for every build, but that doesn’t necessarily determine when you pick it up, nor does it change that for five levels there you feel as if you’re improving.

One of the big mistakes of the whole “unpruning” thing in Shadowlands was not getting the idea that pruning is a problem that goes deeper. Pruning was always about making your spec have a complete toolkit from day one with some additional tricks as you leveled up, whereas the original class design was much more about having a very broad toolkit that you specialized in based on your spec. (Hence using the term spec, short for specialization.) It’s not that every Mage had Arcane Explosion when 2/3rds of them never needed it; it’s that every mage had the same base kit and spec determined which bits you could make the best use of.

we have au ra at home

So you might start off with two different abilities that do the same damage and are functionally interchangeable, but one of them is core to your spec, and those five levels when you’re getting 5% more damage to one of them every level make you feel more powerful – even if just only having one of them at its “final” power is more efficient.

More to the point, there’s some flexibility in there, some space for slightly sub-optimal picks that still have an effect on how you play. It’s a very true statement that everyone could just look for the best builds online instead of figuring this stuff out level by level, which really hasn’t changed much with the new build system, but when you’re talking about a whole lot of points segmented by level instead of just a half-dozen choices, there’s more room to fit in a little off-color splash for personal convenience. The impact of “I just want this small dose of utility for soloing even if it’s slightly less DPS” is ameliorated when there are just… more choice to make in the first place.

All of this combines to make talent trees something that I consider fun. They’re nice. They’re not flawless by any means (especially when, for example, a single misclick could wind up forcing you into paying money for a respec), but no other system that Blizzard has developed has actually been better, so throwing them out for not being flawless ultimately seems like a kind of bad idea.

So if all that is good, why do I also have some apprehensions? Well… let’s look at the level squish.

You remember the level squish, right? It happened back at the start of Shadowlands. And it was necessary, sure, and it was a good thing, and now we’re getting another bump of levels in Dragonflight. And that speaks to something that is a consistent problem in this game, sort of the inverse of the weaksauce housing excuse: The design solutions that solve today’s problem but don’t solve the problem that’s inevitably going to result.

Having a level squish was a good thing, but if you’re just going to go right back to adding levels at the same pace as before and not change how things are structured in any way, you are going to wind up in the same place. That’s not even speculation; we’ve literally seen it happen, with the item rebalancing that happened in Warlords of Draenor and then needed to happen again in Battle for Azeroth, and it’s going to need to happen again in the future because things are still balanced to scale up in an out-of-control fashion.

Ah, the specter remains.

A phrase I like to use in a variety of relevant situations is that you cannot uncross a river. We cannot go back to a time when Blizzard would never remove talent trees from the game because it’s already happened before. Returning them to the game is nice, but you can’t trick yourself into thinking that this is the new default state going forward; the design team on the game now can and will rip them out of the game again whenever it seems like the right idea.

Heck, you’ve already got interviews with the designers where they say things like, “Sure, we’re going to have to change this in two or three expansions.” There are no pillars. There are no foundations. There’s just an ever-shifting “what works today” and no thought for addressing problems in a firm fashion that can stand the test of time.

So yeah, I’m happy to see talent trees coming back. I’m excited to see how they work. But I also don’t have any misconception that this marks a genuine philosophical change or an effort to make things exist in a more firm and grounded design space. More than anything, I see it as a step in the right direction, but also one that the people in power are already preparing to walk back if it becomes even slightly inconvenient. And if that’s where we’re at now, well, it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about the longer future.

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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