The idea of hunters dual-wielding pistols has been around since the beginning of WoW. The reason it keeps coming up is because it's frickin' awesome. It was even recently addressed by Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer) himself in the Developer Twitter Chat back in January. Specifically, he said:
I should stress here that Blizzard has never said that they are going to do this, and they have never even said that they're considering it. However, we certainly know that they are aware of the idea. I started thinking about this again when BRK brought it up as a guest on the Hunting Party Podcast a couple weeks ago, and my half-formed ideas on how pistols could fix some problems with the hunter class grew into fully formed ideas.
Join me after the cut as we take a look at why I think this is more than just something cool, but also a much-needed change for the hunter class.
The only ranged class that cannot make full attacks from melee
Now, this is a somewhat delicate subject that must be approached with caution. Everyone jealously guards the awesome stuff that makes their class unique and hates the idea of any other class getting "their" mechanics. But we can be all too swift to want to get rid of the weaknesses that make our class unique. And without any weaknesses at all, the class would be pretty boring.
I love kiting and strafing and jump-shotting and stutter-stepping to let those auto-shots go off during movement and jump-disengage and all the little quirks and obstacles that make hunters so challenging to play well in movement-heavy fights. Those things that make it challenging are the same things that make it rewarding when you master the skills. I do not want to get rid of any of that.
But I do think that removing our entire toolbox of our shots when in melee range causes too many problems. I think this mechanic should be changed to make the class more intuitive and understandable, make PvP balance easier and more interactive, and make raid bosses more balanced and easier to design.
The dead zone
I should start by pointing out that things are better for us now than they were back in vanilla. Originally hunters had a "dead zone." Our shots only worked from 8 yards or farther and we could only melee from 5 yards or closer. So there was this range in which we literally couldn't do anything. This was removed in BC, but I still have nightmares of mages freezing me in place and dancing madly in circles blasting away while I looked on, helpless. Rather like getting jumped by a rogue, really.
Happily, we don't have the dead zone anymore. However, we do have that pesky melee range where all our optimization, our rotations, the vast majority of every ability given to our class to attack our enemies cannot be used at all.
Too many toolboxes
The first problem with our minimum range is that it forces us to have two separate sets of toolboxes, depending on where we're standing. Now every class has different tools for different situations -- ways to close and slow and snare and break slows and snares. But we actually have an entirely separate toolbox.
Once we're in melee, we set aside all of our offensive abilities, which can no longer be used at all, and switch them for an entirely different set of offensive abilities. If you're a raider, this other toolbox may not even be on your action bars. Of course we've heard that our melee toolbox will be getting pruned down in Cataclysm, which is good I think. But personally, I'd dump it all out. Get rid of it entirely.
The only purely melee ability I'd leave in the hunter arsenal is Wing Clip, and I'd change its name. Call it Pistol Whip.
PvP kite and close balance
The minimum range is also, I think, I big issue with PvP balance. Right now, if you see a hunter on the battlefield, the right way to deal with it is to close to melee and use whatever abilities you have to keep the hunter from getting away. If you're a warrior at 20% health and the hunter is at full health, you want to close with him. If you can stay in melee, you'll kill the hunter. You don't even consider hiding behind a pillar until you get some heals. This is not a decision to be made when facing a hunter; it's all about how well you can stay in melee. If you're a mage, the answer is the same. Stay in melee and you don't need to worry.
I worry that the PvP design theory with hunters requires an absolutely perfect balance of close and kite abilities. If a class has more ways to close and slow than the hunter has to break slows and get back to ranged, the hunter is doomed any time that class decides to focus on the hunter. However, if the hunter has more ways to break slows, get to range (and slow the opponent in turn), then the melee classes will never be able to attack the hunter and just get kited forever.
The current design requires such a perfect balance of those abilities and their cooldowns for equally skilled opponents to be on more or less equal footing.
If the minimum range is removed, just flat-out removed, hunters will still desperately want to stay out of melee, just like other ranged classes. But if that warrior with 20% is looking at a hunter at full health ... suddenly closing isn't always the right answer.
And best of all, that delicate balance of kite and close is suddenly less vital. Maybe you'll find that some classes can generally stick to us better than our ability to escape. Well, OK, we still have things we can do now. We aren't just sitting there toothlessly and futilely trying to escape. We have more options as well, more decisions. Do we try to escape, or risk eating the big damage and try to burst them down?
PvE design dilemmas
Hunter minimum range is also an issue for PvE content, though I'd argue not as big a deal as it is for PvP. There are some boss fights where it sucks to be melee and some boss fights where it sucks to be ranged. But hunters have the unique experience of enjoying boss fights where it just plain sucks to be a hunter.
In any fights where it's advantageous for the raid to all clump in melee (such as Marrowgar), it sucks to be a hunter. We are unable to take advantage of the mechanics that every other DPS class can. In fights where it's necessary for the raid to clump in melee (such as the Lich King valkyr or Putricide green slimes), then it really sucks to be a hunter. We suddenly get to be the only class whose DPS is radically cut.
Every class has its advantages and disadvantages, and overall I think they all work out pretty well. However, the minimum range is an entirely different category of disadvantage in raid content -- a disadvantage unlike any that any other class has. I also have to assume that the minimum range also limits the abilities of encounter designers somewhat. You can never make a boss that requires everyone to be in melee most of the time, because then you're designing an encounter to which you cannot bring a hunter.
Enter the pistols
One possible solution I'd propose -- other than just eliminating the minimum range entirely -- is pistols. Or hand crossbows. Both should certainly be in the game, but we'll call them pistols because guns are inherently cooler and superior to crossbows (both of which are better than bows).
Make pistols a melee weapon. Like any other melee weapon, they have a DPS stat and serve as a stat stick. But instead of working with melee special attacks, they instead work with ranged special attacks, just like our normal guns. They have ranged DPS. They only work from melee range, of course. Once we go beyond melee range, our attacks automatically switch to our real gun, just like we do now.
The best thing about this system is that it eliminates entirely the "two toolbox" confusion. We can still use every single shot that we normally use, but we can use it in melee range.
If you want to punish hunters for being in melee, you can still accomplish this goal. Make it so only your main-hand pistol actually contributes the ranged DPS number. The off-hand is there just as a stat stick. So you can choose to use an axe or sword or another pistol for your off hand. This means that our auto-shots and every shot that calculates its damaged based off of ranged weapon DPS will do less damage in melee range, due to the much lower ranged DPS of a one-handed melee weapon, as opposed to our big guns.
In this system, the hunter class is much more intuitive to play. You are a hunter: You have a pet that attacks, and you shoot things. You're just plain not a melee class. When enemies get close, you shoot them with a pistol for less damage; when they're far, you shoot them with a big gun for more damage.
You don't need to learn two different sets of abilities, but you do still need to learn to kite and disengage and you do want to stay at range. Melee is still dangerous. However, you are not completely toothless in addition to being vulnerable in melee range. You can shoot them in the face.
I realize that implementing this would require a lot of work. It's a big change. But it's the kind of big change you make during, you know, an expansion. This, more than anything else at the moment, is what I would love to see for the hunter class in Cataclysm.
[Update} Asher in the comments had a great suggestion for implementation: rather than adding a new item type to drop from bosses, fold it into Reforging. So you reforge regular guns/x-bows that already drop into the pistols/hand x-bows. Elegant solution!
You want to be a hunter, eh? You start with science, then you add some Dwarven Stout and round it off some elf-bashing. The end result is massive DPS. Scattered Shots is the WoW.com column dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter. See the Scattered Shots Resource Guide for a full listing of vital and entertaining hunter guides, including how to improve your heroic DPS, understand the impact of skill vs. gear, get started with Beast Mastery 101 and Marksman 101 and even solo bosses with some extreme soloing.