WoW Factor: Dragonflight’s talent trees don’t feel like a speedrun slam dunk

    
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Yeah, this is a thing.

So we’ve seen some of the talent trees being unveiled for World of Warcraft: Dragonflight at this point. Five of the 12 extant classes have gotten previews, not counting the fact that the final count is going to be 13 different classes because of Evokers. That’s not the greatest speed at this point as we get closer and closer to what looks like a reasonable date for alpha testing to start on, but it does indicate that movement is happening on this. All good, all heartening.

More than that, however, player feedback on these early previews has come in, and at least from limited variables it does seem as though right now Blizzard is making a point of listening to that feedback and promising that talents will either be addressed and moved or that perception is an issue of ambiguous tooltips for early development. This is also good. This is a sign that ideas being promised are, in fact, being delivered upon along the way.

So why doesn’t this fill me with confidence still? Well… a few reasons. And most of them come down to speedrunning.

I do not do speedruns myself, but I love watching them as they develop, and I have at least enough familiarity with them to understand how they work. Speedruns, in no small part, center around a principle of certainty. While speedruns can feature adaptation to random events, a lot of what you do in a speedrun needs to either be predictable before it happens or at least controllable within a range. You know this enemy can move left or right, and you need it to move left; if it moves right, the run is over and you reset.

The point is that you are, ultimately, going for a run in which there is as little variance as possible. Yes, the odds of everything lining up might be very low, but you need to play as if everything is going to line up properly.

So what in the world does this have to do with Dragonflight? Well, because with the stated launch date of the expansion, Blizzard is attempting to do a speedrun in development.

Readers have probably noticed by now that I am rather skeptical of this plan working out for a variety of reasons, nearly all of which wind up coming down to “Blizzard.” But the fact of the matter is that releasing something way faster than normally possible is not actually an impossible trick to pull off in software development. You just have three options for doing so: pushing in an insane amount of crunch, treating the release date as absolute and releasing whatever you have on that date regardless of how ready it is, and having a really rock-solid design that doesn’t require a lot of changing.

Burning everything.

It should be noted that these are not mutually exclusive options, and it is still very much on the table that Blizzard brings good old Captain Crunch onto the table with a vengeance. This would be a remarkably bad idea given the company’s current image issues and everything else, but for the purposes of this particular discussion, that’s not worth entertaining further. It’s possible but it is far from confirmed and isn’t what leads to the current skepticism; let’s leave it at that.

So if Blizzard is trying to speed things up, the studio needs to have not just plans for all of its talent trees but pretty solid plans. These systems need to be ready to be implemented and be mostly adjusted from a technical side rather than a conceptual side. Maybe there’s a bug where you can’t adjust your talent points in the inns on Kalimdor for some reason, and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed, or maybe a Demon Hunter talent is incorrectly buffing abilities by 30% when it’s supposed to be 15%. These are issues to be fixed.

What you can’t really do – simply because you don’t have time to do it – is have a Demon Hunter talent tree that requires completely removing and redesigning a talent because it’s just not working well, which means redesigning five other talents because they all interacted with one another, and holy hell how is it November this expansion is supposed to be out this year what are we going to do Kyle?!

I am assuming someone named Kyle works at Blizzard.

Let me make something clear: I do not think that Blizzard realizing that the Demon Hunter talent tree needs a major redesign due to player feedback is a bad thing from a design standpoint. It indicates a maturation of Blizzard’s overall design philosophies and a very admirable shift away from “we know better than you, just let us be in charge” to “let’s listen to player feedback and engage with it honestly.” All of these are good things, and quite frankly, they’re exactly the sort of things I want to see at this juncture.

What I am saying is a bad thing is if this is happening while Blizzard is already attempting to do something insanely difficult by speedrunning this particular release at full tilt. This is already a dubious release schedule based on the sheer amount of time that Blizzard has to make this work, and trying to course-correct while galloping along at full speed strikes me as having less chance of producing a better end result and more like trying to do full-speed drift turns on a bus.

Sure, that looks pretty awesome when you manage to pull it off for some reason in Grand Theft Auto V, but when you’re getting your CDL, you’re not taught how to perform drifts to make sure you stick with the municipal bus schedule.

Hoof

Thus far, what we’ve seen of the talent trees and where they are overall is not consistent with Blizzard having nailed all of this perfectly before rolling out the first testing. What we’ve seen is… well, a pretty standard Blizzard offering. Good ideas in many places with iffy implementation, some things that are either too weak or too strong for where they’re located, probably a few placeholders where the designers knew they would need to redo something later.

And that’s fine, in the abstract. But if you’re going to try to convince people that the expansion will absolutely, totally, no-fooling be out this year, this falls into the “doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence” zone because in order to make that happen, you need to be able to pretty much ensure that you’ll only need minor tweaks along the way at best.

Obviously, my stance on this has been all along that it makes more sense for the developers to accept that circumstances have conspired beyond their control to mean that the game is going to miss its expansion window this year. That’s unpleasant and far from desirable, but it needn’t be inherently apocalyptic. But right now we’re being told to expect the expansion this year, and that’s the context we have to take everything within.

I’m not saying that the expansion will be bad, but I am saying that based on what we’ve seen so far, the expansion is either going to have to be delayed, it’s going to ship as an absolute nightmare mess, or it’s going to involve a whole lot of crunch in the hopes of avoiding that “nightmare mess” scenario. Pick whichever one sounds most optimistic to you.

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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