I've had an article on this subject percolating for a while. Why people play what they do is a question that endlessly fascinates me, and Nick Yee made a business out of examining the various factors that influenced people's class and role choices in games. Unfortunately, with only fan site numbers to go on, it's sometimes tough to figure out exactly what's happening with demographic shifts ingame. For a while now we've had the sense that, while Feral has lost population since Wrath hit, it's bears in particular who've been hit hardest, and as I've written previously, they've all but vanished from my own server. Because most Armory data sites don't distinguish between bear and cat specs, I never figured out whether all the stories I heard about a shrinking bear population were an accurate gloss on what was going on.
Sometimes, though, Blizzard cuts through the confusion and bluntly states that a class or spec just isn't being played that much. Witness, if you will, the gradual extinction of the bear.
So Xariks on the Tanking forum poses the question; why are bears so underplayed? Any well-designed spec that's a PvE or PvP powerhouse and the frequent target of nerf demands has historically resulted in a huge influx of players (e.g. rogues for most of classic WoW and warlocks in Burning Crusade, among others). In Feral, we have before us a spec that had a 50% share of the druid population in BC and, in the transition to Wrath, received considerable buffs to many of its historic weak spots, the removal of prejudicial encounter mechanics, the addition of another weapon option, and the tanking community's hatred for its highest effective health on average. Yet they've been singled out for especial commentary for being, per Ghostcrawler, an "unpopular spec" in modern raids.
Druids, tanks, and developers all want to know -- what gives?
It's taken me a while to work through this article, in part because I could never be sure I was hitting the right tone. Let me be clear; I love the druid class desperately, and I think anyone who's not playing one needs to have their head examined. I think the Feral spec is well-designed, and I also think that the majority of the problems it's suffered in raids have been the result of the shifting philosophy concerning encounter design rather an than inherent flaw with the spec itself. I have no desire for this to turn into a QQ-fest. To be frank, I just want to know what the hell's going on.
If you go through forum and discussion threads, a set of commonly-cited reasons for the bear shortage starts to emerge. I've taken the liberty of condensing and listing them here as 8 separate but related schools of argument. Many of them don't have much to do with druids themselves, but do have a lot to do with how human nature and demographic shifts ingame wind up influencing what people can play. Some of them aren't necessarily problems per se (and I don't agree with all of them) -- but they are issues that both druid and non-druid players alike seem to think are exercising influence on the bear population.
Complaint #1: Bears just aren't as visually compelling as other tanks.
"If I'm going to tank, I don't want to stare at a bear ass all the time, especially a LARGE bear ass that takes up half the screen."
In any MMORPG, the visual "coolness" factor has a large impact on avatar choice, even if people aren't wild about admitting it. With the new bear and cat designs, there's no question that bears look better than they ever have, but a fully-geared plate tank is an impressive sight. The most popular tank, the protection warrior, is also one of the most visually iconic and distinctive avatars in the game, and is still the tank most likely to appear in official literature, art, and fan art. Plate tanks are also more visually dynamic than bears, who remain the same static model from 10 through the level cap. As Alex Ziebart observed behind the scenes here, the druid class in WoW breaks one of the cardinal rules concerning MMO design; it is impossible to "advance" the character given that the druid is almost always in form.
Plate tanks also have access to cool animations -- e.g., Shield Bash, Death and Decay, Consecration, Holy Shield, Heroic Throw -- that bears don't have. Warriors and paladins in particular always seem to be in constant motion: smashing their shields into an enemy's face, parrying and dodging attacks, casting/using the aforementioned abilities, etc. The bear, by contrast, isn't quite as interactive. It lacks an animation for avoidance, Lacerate and Swipe are the same thing, Maul reuses an animation originally programmed for the beta bear graphic, and the Mangle animation really doesn't make much sense.
My take: Eh. A static form graphic plagues all four druid specs, but druid population numbers aren't exactly suffering right now. If third-party sites are accurate, we're doing better than we've ever done, with an ideal 10% share of the characters at 80 and a fairly measured split among Balance, Feral, and Restoration players. So if static form graphics are in fact a problem (and not all druids would agree they are), it's not one that's impacting class representation as a whole. Moreover, a raid leader doesn't care whether a bear player is bored by the form graphic; they care if you can do your job. Druid tank representation could only by indirectly impacted by "boring" graphics insofar as it affected class population as a whole -- and right now, class population just isn't an issue.
Having said that, I'll concede that the bear could probably stand to be made a lot more interesting with respect to its animation set. And what on earth happened to the old Enrage animation that wasn't a clone of Demoralizing Roar? It disappeared halfway through BC and never came back.
Complaint #2: Gear consolidation had a more demoralizing effect on druids than other tanks.
"In BC the tanks talked the drops over and took care of each other. Now I'm fighting half the raid for gear while the other tanks get everything handed to them. That's not fun."
The merits of gear consolidation aside, there's something uninspiring about having to compete with your DPS for "tanking gear." Back in Tier 7, it was somewhat uncomfortable that the bear's best-in-slot legs (Leggings of the Honored off a hard-mode Sartharion) were also the best-in-slot DPS legs for multiple classes, and that situation's reoccurred with various pieces since. While many raids prioritize drops toward tanks in accordance with the very common "gear your tanks first" mantra (and the situation's been somewhat eased by the changes to Berserker stance for warriors rendering DPS leather less desirable), Wrath itemization has removed a lot of the excitement over upgrading your tanking gear because there really isn't any.
DPS leather is now "tanking" leather, but with +hit and +haste in overabundance and a maddening difficulty reaching the hard +expertise cap, bears are reminded at every turn that melee DPS leather is...well, melee DPS leather. We're supposed to use the same rings, cloaks, necklaces, and trinkets as other tanks, but with +strength on almost all of it and the not-infrequent presence of +parry and +block, the end result is that, no matter what you're using, it feels like Blizzard's irritably shoving you into someone else's gear.
My take: I have to admit that this wound up affecting me a lot more than I thought it would. It was really exciting to get things like Treads of the Den Mother and Wildfury Greatstaff back in Burning Crusade, because that gear was obviously meant for us. It's not as much fun to get a non-set drop and squirm at your keyboard realizing you just cost the rogues "their" Acidmaw Treads and the Death Knight "his" Dark Edge of Depravity. Even feral staves, once the most iconic and unique part of a class that rarely got to see its gear, have been cannibalized in the interest of consolidating loot lists. They were the one thing that marked you as a tank from all the way across Shatt, in much the same way that a Bulwark of Azzinoth was the indelible mark of a protection warrior or paladin. While this distinction has been preserved for them, there's really nothing special that remains for druids.
Don't get me wrong -- I don't miss the itemization and "Whither +defense?" nightmare of BC, but I desperately miss being able to look at a new tier of content and bouncing up and down happily seeing the beautiful new feral staff. Right now, all I see is just one more damn drop to fight over.
Complaint #3: The need to use DPS leather has resulted in an uncomfortable opportunity cost associated with gearing bear tanks.
"My raid leader's a rogue, and he's sick of sitting around waiting for me to get my stuff. We're going for hard-mode Jaraxxus-25 this week and his three options are a warrior, a death knight, and me. Guess who'll be coming as resto?"
Gear drops are zero-sum. I got the aforementioned Leggings of the Honored. The DPS warrior didn't. Did they drop again? Nope. A raid that chooses to prioritize drops toward a bear tank is, at least in the short term, costing itself improved damage from its melee DPS and/or hunters. This isn't a problem that results from the use of any other tank; the rest of the raid doesn't want tanking plate or anything with the slightest whiff of a defensive stat on it.
Turnabout is fair play too. If your raid doesn't prioritize drops toward tanks, odds are pretty good you're going to be upgrading your tanking set a lot more slowly than your buddy the prot pally, who's not going to have much competition for any drops apart from tier tokens.