The state of Wow's design

WotLK!It’s been roughly six months since the last expansion came out, so I thought it would be a good time to give my thoughts about how the game has evolved and where it is today.

Short disclaimer: this is, as usual, a very long article that I’m pretty sure a lot of people won’t have the time to read. I’m ok with it; my short little fun blurbs have a much better home on my twitter page, and I aim my blog articles at some slightly more in depth analysis. My aim here isn’t to just state what I like or dislike, but rather to take a longer look at the hows and whys of the choices that were made, and try to understand the philosophy of this type of game design. I would recommend this article to any Wow fan, but also any MMO enthusiast who doesn’t have the time to get to level 80 in Wow and explore the intricacies of Blizzard’s designs.
So anyway, if you have a little bit of time to waste I hope you enjoy it and it brings something to your day! 🙂

Ok, here we go:

There are a few very obvious good sides and bad sides to the game today compared to what it was in Burning Crusade, or even Classic Wow. I think most people will agree on these:

The good includes the leveling process from 70 to 80. I think everyone agrees it strike an almost perfect balance between innovative quests and the usual “kill ten rats” ones. To the point that I don’t know how they could make it a lot better without completely changing the MMORPG paradigm. They involve you in interesting story lines, they don’t draw out the leveling as you get closer to 80, and each zone has epic events and characters that you will remember throughout… I really think you’ll be hard pressed finding people who dislike the experience.

The bad includes the horrible horrible lag in some zones (Dalaran at peak hours, Wintergrasp and the whole continent when battles end, some raid instances when they are particularly populated…). Some of those have been / are being addressed, but it’s still a very clear shortcoming of this version of the game.
I could also talk about the fact that group dynamics have been murdered by the revamping of some gameplay mechanics: crowd control is a distant memory, tanking is a semi-mindless AOE fest, mana regeneration has become so overinflated that you basically never hear any healer saying he’s out of mana anymore… The flip side being that when you start an instance, you can be pretty certain that you’re going to be able to complete it, and in a reasonable amount of time at that (painful memories of The Shadow Labyrinth from The Burning Crusade come to mind). There should be a middle ground somewhere, or maybe some optional way to challenge players a bit more. I for one hope they find it at some point.
Lastly, the game has become more “arcady” and “easy” than it ever was. Some people dislike this and I certainly can understand why. I do however think this has more upsides than downsides, but that’s another story.

So all this is true and has been discussed at length in many forums. What I would like to point out here is the incredible mechanics and designs that Blizzard has managed to implement into this expansion and that are going slightly unnoticed, or at least undiscussed.

Fun specs

Not so long ago, a large part of the talent trees were uninteresting and / or inefficient in many situations. Yet you you HAD to spec into them for certain purposes. No more! Every single spec has some awesomeness to them. You might dislike one or the other because it doesn’t fit your play style, but all the specs now include the “concentrated coolness” principle that Blizzard is fond of. I would even go as far as to say that talent builds have become more difficult to create because 90% of the talents are appealing, which is quite an achievement in itself. Note that I’m not talking about optimizing and minmaxing your spec to be the best possible tank or raid DPS or PVP murderer, but just about the innate cool factor of each talent. They almost all seem cool and useful, and you want them all when you’re building your tree. It makes for hard choices when some of them were very clearly fillers previously. If you don’t believe me, just go take a look at the talent trees pre-3.0.

Gameplay improvement through procs

This mostly applies to DPS classes, which had very regular spell rotations they could repeat ad nauseum in almost every encounter in the game. Some had the fun of crowd controlling to spice things up (which has now disappeared as I said) but apart from that you could pretty much sleep through your raid nights or even leveling sessions.
One of the features that is being used a lot more today is the idea of one of your action or spell effect “allowing” you to use another one.
For example, an arms warrior will sometimes be allowed to use the Overpower ability when his Rend does damage, even if the primary condition for their overpower ability isn’t met. A mage will get an instant Pyroblast if two of his spells critically hit in a row. This is true throughout the classes and talent trees in the game. the benefit for the player is that it forces them to pay attention to what’s happening and gets them out of the incredibly monotonous process that DPS used to be. Great great improvement, makes the DPS role a lot more involved and a lot more fun. Now if we could just get a smidge of crowd control back also, it would be heaven.

Class Balance

I don’t think class balance has ever been as good as it is today, both in PVE and PVP. Some might disagree with me, but you need to understand what I’m saying: I’m not saying class balance is perfect, I’m just saying it’s very acceptable in most cases, and that it’s certainly the best it’s ever been.
In PVE, a tank is now a tank, no matter the class. It wasn’t always like that, and some groups would often misgidedly reject this or that class out of hand because “they’re not good enough for this instance”. I can also remember a time where groups would require a priest as a healer, and there were severe disparities in DPS capabilities. No more! ™ Sure, you can find some classes that will do better than others if you’re picky, but all in all they are mostly equivalent while staying different in play style.
PVP is a touchy subject. I certainly don’t mean to imply that classes are balanced against any other here either, because they are not. But all classes (and even most specs) are viable in PVP. Sure, some classes or specs are hopelessly underpowered in some situations (hunters in 2v2 arenas are at the bottom of the barrel) and some classes are still painfully powerful (no one can withstand the DPS and stun fest that a couple of rogues can instill with a well set up opener, and it’s some healers will survive for hours, even against two opponents). But overall, the situation has become largely acceptable and mostly very satisfactory in all PVP situations. Unless you want to be the absolute best you can be in a specific situation, you can pretty much go with the class or spec you like and have fun in most PVP situations. Again, pre-3.0, it really really really wasn’t the case.

Different avenues to get gear

We’re leaving the realm of gameplay mechanics here and entering “game design land”. Giving you options to get gear is a designer’s way to not force you to do something you don’t want to, which is absolutely brilliant. In Burning Crusade, getting the best pre-raiding gear required you to go through hours and hours of farming, repeating the same instance to either get the piece of armor off this one boss that dropped it, or to get your reputation up with the specific faction that would sell it to you. Here’s a list of how you can get great pre-raiding items in Wrath of the Lich King:
– Running a dungeon in the hopes of getting that one item you want from that one boss you need to kill. It usually won’t take more than three of four tries (keep in mind that an instance is takes only a fraction of the time it did in previous versions of the game, and it has become easy enough that you will complete it 99% of the time). At the same time you will get badges and reputation for the faction of your choice, so it never really feels like you’re wasting your time even if you don’t get the item you wanted. What’s more, you can run a variety of instances while still getting these benefits. This is a well known part of the puzzle, but bare with me.
– Running entry level raids with random people has become very possible, especially at this point in the game where people are geared and know the encounter strategies. It is very easy to keep an eye on the general or LFG channel and spot a “need one last <insert your role here> for Sartharion”, jump in, get your loot and leave. Same goes for Naxxramas, or even Ulduar in some cases.
– Buy from faction vendors. Even at lower reputation levels you’ll get some decent rare items, and getting to the higher levels that will allow you to purchase epics is way easier than it used to be.
– Buy from badge vendors. Again, you get these no matter what, and the equipment you can purchase with the badges is comparable to the epics you would get in entry level raids.
– Buy craftable epics. Each class / role has at least two pieces of armor they can use, plus one or two weapons, a neckless and a ring. With this alone, you’re already well on your way.
– Do your weekly Archavon / Emalon run. A pugable encounter (yes, even Emalon is largely pugable if you have a slight idea of what you’re doing, and it will become increasingly so as people get geared up). This is a simple process that requires no planning and that even the most casual players can benefit from. It will provide you with some of the best gear in the game, both for PVE and for PVP. By the way, I disagree with people who say that giving you good gear through this easy avenue was a mistake on Blizzard’s part: the weekly timer ensures that you won’t get geared to fast, but it still gives everyone the feeling that they are achieving something. And by the time you’ve actually gotten some nice drops, the next level of gear has been introduced in the game anyway.

So this is a summary of the ways you can get gear for PVE, and the list of improvements to the ways of getting PVP items is almost as long, so I won’t get into it here. The point is that while it is still a reasonably long process to get to where you want to be in terms of performance with your character, the trip has become a far less repetitive and monotonous one.
Some people think that giving casual players the same powerful gear that you give hard core players is a mistake because it devalues their achievements. While I certainly understand the concern, I have to say that after a few months of actually playing the game I find I’m having a lot more fun / motivation / satisfaction in the gearing process (which is a core component in the game) than I ever did. And I suspect that a lot of the large casual player base agrees with me. In the end, making the game more enjoyable for as many players as possible is what really matters. These concerns were very valid ones in theory and they were discussed at length before the game came out, but I would submit that in actuality you would be hard pressed finding people who enjoy Wrath of the Lich King *less*than they did Burning Crusade.

Hard work for little optimization

This might sound like a bad thing, but let me explain: in previous versions of the game, you had a linear path to optimisation with, let’s say 100 “time units” to get the first tier of enchantment. Then you’d need to spend 400 “time units” to get the second tier of enchantment, but it would be so much better than the first tier that you basicaly needed to do it if you wanted to be taken seriously. Today, the time structure is the same, but the benefit from going to tier one to tier two is minimal. This is true for reputation enchantments and regular enchantments alike: a very expensive weapon enchantment or an “exalted” reputation enchantment will only be slightly better than the trivial “cheap” or “honored” variety. The difference is not negligible, so people who want to be the best at what they do will still be motivated to go the extra mile, but it’s not so much better that people who didn’t invest this bigger amount of time aren’t able to compete.

Profession benefits

Last improvement that I was skeptical about but turned out to be very beneficial: the professions philosophy revamp. Before WotLK, professions provided you with pieces of equipment that only you could use, giving players the motivation (and sometimes feeling of obligation) to level up their craft. Today, you can sell almost any piece of equipment you can craft, which helps pretty much everyone gear up. The unique benefit that you will get for leveling your profession will come in the form of very powerful or very easily accessible enchantments: spellthreads, special gems, gem sockets, shoulder enchantments, armor kits, etc.
This is brilliant because, once again, it provides a very clear advantage to the people who invest the time and effort in their craft, yet it doesn’t give anyone the feeling that they need to do it in order to be competitive.

Well, I guess that’s it. If I’m forgetting a couple I’ll update the post, but what I take away from all this is that the designers at Blizzard have made a clear play for the “don’t force anyone into anything” path. Wrath of the Lich King could have been subtitled “do what you like”. Sure it has its problems, there’s no denying that. But in my opinion, the good far makes up for the bad. I can’t wait to see how they will manage to top themselves in the next expansion… 🙂

May 18th, 2009