So how many classes are there in World of Warcraft? There are wrong answers, but there’s more than one right answer.
If your answer was “13,” you are right. There were nine base classes when the game launched in 2004, and in the intervening 19 years we have received… four more. That’s an average of one new class about every five years, which is pretty pathetic when you look at other games that have a fundamentally class-based structure. Not uniquely pathetic (how many new classes have been added to Star Wars: The Old Republic?) but that’s still pretty bad for a game that, at one point, basically made all the money.
If your answer was “38,” you are also right! The game launched with 27 different classes when you consider that each spec is kind of like its own self-contained class, and while that has gotten more pronounced over the years, even in vanilla you would describe yourself by spec first. Over the years that’s expanded, and even with the new tradition of launching new classes with only two specs we’ve gotten 11 more over the years, or about one every two years. Still not great, but better!
If your answer was “why would you ever play anything other than Mage/Warlock/Warrior/Rogue,” you are wrong, and you should go somewhere that has all the grass ever so you can touch it.
So which one is more accurate? Well, thereby hangs a tale because the reality is that Blizzard has never been great at figuring out how all these specs are supposed to work. In broad strokes, for example, Arms, Fury, and Protection have found spaces to be totally distinct from one another. But it took a long time for Assassination, Subtlety, and Shadow to all be very different. Survival for Hunters has gone through three very distinct phases of design. You get the idea.
The point is that, at the end of the day, neither of the correct answers is actually completely correct. On one level, there are four sub-classes within the header of Druid; on another level, there’s one class called Druid, and you can specialize within it. And on another level your specialization options are narrow enough that no matter what, your Druid is never really shifting forms all that often.
So does the game actually need more classes? Which number is closer to correct? Would another class or two really make a difference?
And keep in mind that the answer here involves balancing. Which Blizzard is, frankly, awful at.
I’ve talked before about how balance is, in the larger scheme of things, kind of overrated. This is true. There are games and studios that do better or worse at it, and every single game has at least a few major blind spots. But Blizzard has long been singularly bad at it thanks to a combination of really strange myopia and a seemingly deep-seated aversion to look at the process of balance in any serious way.
The game’s balance makes no accounting for utility whatsoever, seemingly being concerned only with how much damage a spec had been doing before vs. now, which means that you will almost certainly wind up with a spec that can offer a party several pieces of important utility doing exactly as much damage as a spec that offers none. It also doesn’t seem to keep any track of balancing within the context of an actual environment instead of in the abstract, so you wind up with situations where the designers think that two specs should be doing the same damage as long as they have the same uptime!
Disregarding that, you know, one is using a gun and the other is a melee class so the melee one is lucky to get half of the fight actually doing damage while the gun user just stands there, ignores 80% of mechanics, and shoots. Or acting like two melee specs should be doing the same amount of damage when everything is undead and one spec specifically has massive damage bonuses against undead enemies. The list goes on.
None of this is going to get better with another class, whether it has two specs or three. It’s probably going to actually get even worse. And that’s just looking at things purely from a damage point of view; healing and tanking are another matter altogether and have the same problems. On some level the whole thing feels like it’s at a point where it’d almost be better to rip everything up and start over again.
Except these designers did that with Legion and it didn’t make things any better, so there’s that option gone.
So given all of that, is there really space for new classes? Uh… yes, actually. A lot. There’s a whole lot of stuff that hasn’t really been explored, design space that seems to be habitually ignored instead of really picked at.
For example, if you want to use a ranged weapon? Your options are… two specs. That’s it. Two. Do you like dual-wielding swords? Ooh, now you have four options… technically, since one is more likely to be using warglaives. And if you want to dual-wield one-handed swords specifically, you’re basically either a pirate or an undead knight with a cold aura. Those are your realistic options.
You can argue, of course, that some of this comes down to aesthetics. And that’s entirely fair. It is valid to say that if you think about it, Priests don’t need another DPS spec, and it’d be a balance nightmare to add another one… but then, if it comes down to aesthetics, why isn’t that in there?
But it isn’t just aesthetics. It’s about features.
One of the things that expansions are supposed to give you are new ways to interact with the world. But the vast majority of expansions in WoW’s history give you the exact same classes to do the same things you’ve been doing the whole time. Adding new classes is an extra balance burden, but instead of getting that for a long time, we’ve just gotten borrowed power, like having a new class feature you only get to play with until the next expansion rolls around.
This is not necessarily an easy circle to square. The balance issues and the bloat are real. But I also think that in some way it’s a symptom of the game increasingly giving up on new players being drawn in, that you don’t want to level up a new character from level 1 so you can just keep playing on the same class you’ve always been playing.
Which means level 1 is empty, and new players starting there see no one around and just leave.
I don’t have a good solution, but the intensely slow roll is something that does need to be address. I can accept the idea that not every expansion will have a new class, that’s fine, but the sheer number that don’t have anything is a problem. It’s not like the cycle has ever totally stopped, but even with all the bloat and balance issues it might introduce, I feel like the long fan-requested class of Tinker would have been much more interesting than Evokers. And not just because Evokers turned out to be kind of bland.