WoW Factor: Optimal choices in MMO talent trees don’t justify removing them

    
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Surprised? Really?

So there’s this funny persistent thing that goes around when it comes to talent trees in World of Warcraft. A certain coalition of players gets very passionate about defending them, wanting them back, and so forth, and they’re very happy that they’re coming back in Dragonflight. You have probably long since ascertained that I fall into this group. Another group will then chime in and point out that talent trees were just an illusory thing, that there were always “best” talent picks and builds that people could just choose from, and that it won’t result in some magical new land of more build diversity.

And you know what? The second group is right on a strictly factual level. This is a true statement. There are going to be objectively best builds that will circulate basically as soon as the final talent trees are nailed down, and people can (and often will) choose the exact same options. This was true in Wrath of the Lich King, it was true in The Burning Crusade, it will be true in Dragonflight, and it will be true in the next expansion.

It’s just that pointing it out isn’t actually proving the point you think it is – because the same statement is true about the Pandaria trees, too.

The fact of the matter is that no matter what choice you’re talking about, there is going to be a better choice and a worse one. You could arrange every single spec in WoW to have exactly one choice between a new ability with a 30 second-cooldown that increases your Mastery by 100 for 10 seconds and a proc chance on an existing regularly used ability to increase your Mastery by 100 for 5 seconds, and I assure you that one of those choices would be better than the other. People could – and would – do the math and figure out the best choice there.

Welcome to the nature of choice. No matter how well you balance things, there are going to be better or worse options. Every single Mega Man game has some weapons that are just more universally useful than others. Some games you have an option like the Metal Blade, while other games are more subtle but still have weapons with starkly situational or limited uses and some that are just crazy good.

So it is a given that these new talent trees will have “best” options and ideal builds for every spec. This was also true with the much more constrained system of talents where you got one new pick from three options every so often. Just saying “well, there will be a best option” is not arguing that the old talent trees were worse; it’s arguing that every spec should be a bespoke experience without player choice at all.

“But if you know that there are going to be best choices, why bother having more choices in talent trees at all?” And that’s a much better question, and it comes down to the simple fact that by having more choices, there’s much more room to move things around for your build.

Teeth. Not a lack of teeth.

See, here’s the thing about the “best” choices for any given build. Some of them are inevitably obvious; looking at the Wrath of the Lich King talents, for example, you’ll see that every single Retribution Paladin absolutely needs to pick up things like Sanctified Retribution and Crusader Strike. But when you look closer, there are a lot of talents that you pick up not because you need them in order to make your build work but because they’re kind of useful or they give you enough points to move down a tier, and so on.

Take a look at this particular build. What about it significantly changes if you swap Guardian’s Favor for Pursuit of Justice? Everything still works; you’re just swapping a party-focused bit of utility for increased movement speed for yourself. You could argue that it’s making the build a little bit worse, but the reality is that basically no one will notice and that it allows you that little extra bit of freedom. Or you could drop Seal of Command and Aura Mastery and have both, and how often are you really going to use those two abilities?

It’s granular, yes. We’re not talking making major changes to the overall functionality. But because talent trees are more granular, there’s much more space between “basically the right build with a few personalized choices” and “a totally nonsensical build” compared to a situation where your decisions are limited to “seven choices between three options.” Picking an option other than Blade of Wrath for your Retribution Paladin is just plain wrong, and you don’t have points to massage to get Blade of Wrath as well as something else.

I personally long have a history of not liking half-filled talents and often massaging a point or two here so that all of my talent choices are completely filled, rather than have the odd three-point investment in a five-point talent. Is this sometimes slightly sub-optimal? Almost certainly. But the point of these builds is that there’s space for that to exist, for some granularity to work. You can separate out the parts that are vital for a spec or a build and the parts that are helpful, nice to have, or beneficial in an abstract but might conflict with your other choices.

Does this fix every class design issue in place? Of course not. But even if your practical choices come down to only a few actual points in any given direction, it beats out having at best one practical choice and often none. Especially when the scourge of “one ideal build” is always, always going to exist so long as you get to choose.

Building!

This isn’t to say that talent trees or their derivations always have provided good options, that every change of a few points here or there have been fun, or that they are an unalloyed positive in every situation. Care must always be taken with these things to ensure that choices feel balanced, and frankly that has long been an area Blizzard struggles with. This is as true now as it has been in the past.

Having one particular choice be objectively correct can deform player agency, and when it comes to the Dragonflight trees – which have narrow tops and broad bases (compared to classic trees which were the opposite) – it’s only exacerbated. After all, if one of the three “final” talents is wildly better than the others, then that effectively locks you into some of your choices.

So care has to be taken. Balance needs to be monitored. And yes, absolutely, you are going to wind up with scenarios that have a few “best” builds floating around. But that’s the case now, and it’s going to be the case so long as MMOs let players choose anything. As I said above, give us two choices and one will be better than the other, even with very little daylight between them.

But the goal is not to create scenarios where everyone can spend talent points in totally different ways and produce wildly different builds. The goal is (or should be) to create a wider gap between “best build” and “most personally appealing build,” with space to take some sub-optimal choices that you personally like. That’s what really makes the difference.

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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