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Shifting Perspectives: The forest and the trees

Allison Robert

Every week, Shifting Perspectives explores issues affecting druids and those who group with them. This week, we ponder the end of an era, and Allie kicks herself for not recognizing something she should have.

When the news hit on Tree of Life form going bye-bye, I didn't know what to think. To be perfectly clear, chopping the tree down is something that Blizzard's been kicking around for the better part of a year, if not more. We ran a Shifting Perspectives on it in May 2009 in the hope of drawing more attention to a forum thread where Ghostcrawler asked druid players if they thought the Tree was fun. To anyone who's new to the class and thought the developers pulled a fast one, that's not the case; they were open about the possibility that this would happen. When the discussion ended and nothing seemed to come of it, I (foolishly) assumed they had decided to leave well enough alone. The tree wasn't really adding anything to the druid's restoration spec, but it was a harmless addition to a class that considered shapeshifting its raison d'être.

Then the class announcement hit.

Like I said, I didn't know what to think. I sat back, thought about it, read the announcement thread again, thought more, reread the May 2009 thread, read through all of April 2010 class announcements again, noticed a fairly obvious trend, and finally realized something:

What Blizzard is doing with Cataclysm has almost nothing to do with what players have trained themselves to expect after Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. Pavlov's bell is ringing, but it ain't dinnertime.

There are two issues evident in the impending disappearance of the tree. One of them has a lot to do with Blizzard's evolving design goals and what it wants to do with classes that are increasingly starting to show their age. The other is specific to the druid class and the baggage it's carried from the time when it was one of the game's least popular classes. The tree, for better or worse, is a casualty of both.

Old content

The news that Blizzard was redesigning old-world Azeroth was greeted with near universal acclaim at the announcement of Cataclysm at BlizzCon 2009. Everyone applauded the decision to add better quests, get rid of annoying ones, move or add flight paths and eliminate things that just didn't make any sense. Very few people will contest that Blizzard has gotten amazingly better at both zone and quest design after two expansions and countless patches' worth of practice. By contrast, classic World of Warcraft content is an increasingly dated relic of an EverQuest-influenced era. While revolutionary for its time, its sensibilities are still informed by the expectation that MMORPGs needed to be a time sink.

While happy to see classic Azeroth given the spit and polish afforded its counterparts in Outland and Northrend, I'm not sure that many players (and I include myself) made what turned out to be a small logical leap. Azeroth is old content, but every single class in the game barring the death knight is equally old. We aren't used to thinking of them that way. A character that you play in modern content has an immediacy and relevance sorely lacking in, say, Azshara quest lines -- but you are still playing something whose core class design was determined more than five years ago. You may not equate your beloved toon with outdated content, but even new players learn quickly that their emotional attachment to a character is not shared by Blizzard's design team.

Expansions and design intent

As you read the class announcements, a fairly obvious trend emerges. Useless skills aren't being gussied up; they're being removed. Buffs that contribute an overweening amount to raid DPS or survivability are being yanked back. Talents that are just uninspiring improvements to existing skills are being eighty-sixed right and left. Stats requiring several years' worth of advanced calculus to understand are being booted or folded into simpler stats. Several classes with profoundly dysfunctional issues are the target of still-larger overhauls, though players are often so used to their dysfunction that the existing problem is less worrisome than the potential cure.

A tremendous amount of developmental time, in other words, has gone into "subtracting" from classes rather than adding to them. This runs counter to what players have come to expect after two expansions full of cool new toys, and the howls are loud. They are also misplaced.

In addition to moving Warcraft's story forward, each expansion seems intended to accomplish very specific things from a design standpoint. My guess is that Burning Crusade was intended to break, or at least ameliorate, the pure classes' chokehold on end-game supremacy -- and by extension, their grip on class population as well (the racial equivalent was giving blood elves to the Horde). BC gave raids a reason to bring hybrids in a non-healing capacity, even if it wasn't quite prepared to accept competitive hybrid DPS. At the end of BC, players didn't bat an eye at druid or paladin tanks, and hybrid DPS -- while obviously inferior -- wasn't unusual either.

Wrath was intended to do two things: decouple player desirability from class buffs (someone may even have coined a famous phrase concerning this), and increase damage done by DPS specs in proportion to the difficulty of the rotation that produced it. Guilds breathed a sigh of relief and /gkicked the jerks they'd tolerated for the valuable raid buffs their class provided, and players who had gone the length of BC topping the meters with the aid of a single macro were more than happy to switch to more interesting rotations (or, alternatively, aghast to find themselves at the bottom of the meters).

As the end of Wrath approaches, we say, "Nice job" to a 10K+ DPS retribution paladin. We nod at the idea that a skilled shadow priest will thrash a not-very-good warlock on the meters. We shrug indifferently at anyone who has the arrogance to believe that a raid slot is "theirs" for any reason other than player skill.

This seems normal today, but it's a state of affairs all but unimaginable to a player familiar only with classic WoW. It's the product of two expansions' worth of work poured into classes who were designed to be inferior and who have not entirely escaped these early constraints. Hybrid DPS is still notable for almost universally mediocre performance in arena. By contrast, anyone who has run into a halfway decent RMP team is already aware of their likely fate versus classes who were designed to be the best at what they did.

So what's Cataclysm supposed to do?

When the schedule for class changes was first announced, players were excited about all the goodies they were sure to receive. The previous expansions -- in which developers were still dealing with problems caused by class design exercising an unfortunate impact on player desirability -- buffed the living hell out of underplayed classes and specs, and perhaps it wasn't unreasonable to expect more. But that's not the situation we're in today.

has reaped the benefits provided by its earlier brothers, and it doesn't need to repeat what BC and Wrath sought to do. In fact, to do so would probably be counterproductive; the lagging popularity of pure classes nowadays is a sign that the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of hybrid desirability. But excellent players of any class or spec are likely to find themselves desired by a raid, and unpleasant people are increasingly unable to coast on the benefits or buffs their class provides. That's a huge and hopefully permanent leap forward from the game's initial philosophy.

While this isn't something that's been widely acknowledged, Blizzard has largely solved the most pressing social problem in the game. As with their efforts to redesign and retrofit Azeroth, their goal for classes now is not to "fix," but to refine.

Class detritus

Each class (barring the death knight, obviously) has now had more than five years of changing fortunes in both PvE and PvP. Each has skills and talents that were implemented to address situations or design goals that no longer exist. In the transition to Cataclysm, I would be surprised if Blizzard's aim weren't to pare classes down from the pudge and detritus that remain after five years' worth of tinkering for acute problems.

While disruptive, it was inevitable. You can't keep adding new skills and talents to classes that will continue to gain levels for an unknown number of expansions without straining the limits of both the user interface and human memory. You can argue that certain classes were within shouting distance of this already (the "one-man army" syndrome attributed to the enormously popular paladin). Consequently, I doubt much effort will be made to spare talents or abilities that are not a direct contribution to Blizzard's modern vision for a class.

This is where we begin to encounter problems with the Tree.

The forest and the trees

Despite its virtual identification with the restoration spec, the Tree of Life is nonetheless a relic of a time when developers were trying to make a deeply unpopular class more attractive. The initial design for the druid saw it as an endgame secondary healer, and that's precisely the role it fulfilled for most of classic WoW. However, it wasn't a role in which most players had any interest. Innervating the raid's priests and Rebirthing the occasional combat death wasn't an exciting or fulfilling way to experience content, and players voted with their feet.

The Tree was introduced in the leap to BC as a way to increase the druid's capacity as a main-line healer, but the form was deliberately saddled with a number of annoying weaknesses. The once-upon-a-time speed penalty, inability to decurse, depoison, Barkskin (!) or Innervate, and lack of access to offensive spells made popping into tree form a choice for some encounters and a death sentence on others (e.g. Archimonde). You can argue that the tree had a reason to exist when it was more irritating to use -- at least in the sense that it was a clear choice between better HoTs or more utility and survivability -- but it's always left us in an awkward place relative to other healers, who have never been asked to make that choice.

The result was that druid has increasingly been balanced around the use of a form that has dumped weakness after weakness in an effort to make the spec less irritating to play. In Wrath, the form is a straight-up increase to the efficiency and power of the druid's healing at the cost of offensive abilities you're never asked to use in PvE content anyway. While that's great for all those of us who spent BC shifting in and out of form to cast utility spells, it also mean that the tree is squarely in designer crosshairs where players are used to having it, and many genuinely like it, but it's increasingly divorced from a point or purpose.

From a mechanics standpoint, there's nothing the tree can do that can't be yoked to another talent or simply baked into a mastery bonus, so there's little point to arguing that the class' game play would suffer in its absence. The sole exception might be the +armor bonus granted by Improved Tree of Life, but the additional armor is yet another bit of "pudge" added to the class in the effort to give druids a measure of survivability in return for losing the BC-era arena specs. That portion of the talent has virtually no PvE application and ironically did little to prevent a dismal season 5 after its introduction. Afterwards, the armor bonus was just one more incentive for the druid to remain in form and "tank" incoming damage, losing much of the dynamism and interest the class formerly held in PvP. In its current form, the tree is not a strength -- it's a prison.

One of the more unfortunate wrinkles to the problem is that the druid as a class didn't start to become popular until after the tree was introduced. While I can't and won't assert any causal relationship between the two (given BC class demographics, I think it's much more likely that feral improvements and the later success of resto PvP are responsible for the class' rise in popularity), it's less of a stretch to observe that few druid players today have any experience playing resto without access to the form.

As a result, I have mixed feelings about the change. Many in the "newer generation" of druids rolled the class specifically to play a tree, and it's difficult to fault them for resenting its loss. However, their feelings are often in direct conflict with the population that has played a druid since classic, many of whom hated being forced to play an ugly, low-resolution model to enjoy the same throughput as other healers.

Either way, Blizzard's in the uncomfortable position of eliminating something that, while essentially useless from a mechanical perspective, was nonetheless among the reasons why people picked the class. The tree is fun for a lot of players -- and WoW is a game, right? -- but I'm not sure that fun is enough.

EDIT: This may not have come across all that well because I wanted to keep the post as emotion-free as possible, but I'd rather keep the tree form around, even if only as a glyph option for the players who want it. If it doesn't have any impact on combat effectiveness either way (and that's one of the few things all parties can agree on -- there's nothing attached to the form that can't be bumped to another talent), it's hard to defend taking something that exists purely for fun out of the game in the name of streamlining class design or efficiency.

On a personal note, my feelings are as follows:
  • I love healing as a tree.
  • I don't like the Tree of Life graphic, which has been in the game since classic WoW's beta and is long overdue for an update. Playing a low-resolution model in a sea of players with Wrath-quality armor graphics is not fun. It wasn't fun on the feral forms before those were updated, and it's not fun on the older moonkin and tree models now.
  • I play a female tauren as a main, and I love absolutely everything about them with the exception of their casting animations, which I think are incredibly boring and uninspired. She doesn't feel like she's doing anything when she's casting, and one of the principal draws of the druid class is that that was never an irritant due to moonkin and tree form.
  • As a result, regardless of what Blizzard chooses to do (unless it's keeping and upgrading tree form), there is no situation here where I'm gonna win. I hope that accounts for the attempted neutrality in the post.

Every week, Shifting Perspectives treks across Azeroth in pursuit of truth, beauty and insight concerning the druid class. Sometimes it finds the latter, or something good enough for government work. Whether you're a Bear, Cat, Moonkin, Tree or stuck in caster form, we've got the skinny on druid changes in patch 3.3, a look at the disappearance of the bear tank, and thoughts on why you should be playing the class (or why not).

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