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Shifting Perspectives: Class homogenization and the cat

Allison Robert

Every week, Shifting Perspectives explores issues affecting druids and those who group with them. This week, we poke the issue of class homogenization and wait to see if it pokes back.

Before the class announcements hit, I had drafted an article on what I would have loved to see Blizzard do for bears, cats and trees in Cataclysm. You've already seen the expanded bear portion, which was published a few days before the druid announcement was made (no one's ever accused me of great timing), but the cat and tree bits have been (as we say) overtaken by events.

We've already looked at the feral information released, so I don't think it's necessary to recap that. However, I'd like to take a closer look at the cat this week, in much the same way that we turned a critical eye to the Tree of Life's impending disappearance. As much as I generally counsel against reading my own work without access to a prescription stimulant or at least hard liquor, you may find the first portion of the Tree article helpful in giving some background on Cataclysm's class goals.

As a TL:DR on our previous feral analysis, seen through the lens of the tree article's conclusion on Blizzard's design intentions:

  1. Cat damage is in a good place, druids are happy that it's not a "faceroll" spec, and I think Blizzard is happy with that as well. PvE-wise, I don't think we have a lot to worry about.
  2. Many of the changes I saw have more interesting implications for PvP. This is the third expansion in a row where cats are getting more versions of rogue skills, in implicit recognition (I would argue) of the spec's uninspiring arena performance relative to its parent class.
Which leaves us with this week's question: When a spec is literally designed as a copy of a pure class, is a certain amount of class homogenization a good thing? Beware, readers -- arm-waving ahead!

As a general rule, players aren't fond of what's termed "class homogenization," or the duplication of one class' abilities for the benefit of others. Many feel, and not without reason, that this defeats the purpose of having 10 classes in the first place. It's boring to level a class that feels exactly the same as another you've already leveled. In the end game, if Class A can do most of what Class B can do more easily, there's not much reason to bring Class B to a raid, and so on and so forth.

However, the anti-homogenization impulse tends to conflict with players' demands for abilities that are felt to confer a disproportionate advantage to certain classes and specs. Mortal Strike is probably the best example of this. For many years it was the signature ability of the arms warrior -- a consistently successful spec in PvP -- but it was eventually farmed out to hunters during Burning Crusade in an effort to shore up the latter's abysmal performance in arena. For a while, developers even considered giving the ability to shamans -- another class with middling-to-dreadful arena performance -- but eventually nixed the idea. Fortunately, this didn't happen before players were allowed their own, often funny, input on the process ("Is there some sort of Mortal Strike nonproliferation treaty that stops me from having Mortal Strike on my priest?").

In the transition to Wrath, a lot of other signature raid buffs or abilities like Thunder Clap and Replenishment were handed around to different classes, and we're seeing the few holdouts like Sunder Armor scaled back as the game moves on to Cataclysm. While players grumble, I think most have recognized that having to build a group or raid around class- or spec-exclusive buffs is not only a pain in the ass, but it also gives certain classes an uncomfortable amount of influence over the outcome of encounters. In BC, if your hunter was sick, encounters like Void Reaver and Gurtogg Bloodboil were considerably more painful. If your shamans were out for the night, you could forget about pretty much all of Sunwell. Even today, if your warrior doesn't show up, you have no Sunder, and your raid's physical DPS takes a nosedive.

When it comes to "class homogenization," there's a fine line between diluting what makes each class different, fun and exciting, and recognizing that sometimes players need similar tools to deal with PvE and PvP content without being at an unfair disadvantage. What made me want to take a closer look at this as it relates to the cat was an offhand observation in the Tree of Life article concerning RMP teams. Fighting classes who were designed to be the best at what they did is a lot harder than fighting hybrid DPS who can approximate their damage, but not their ability to control a fight. Where PvE's concerned, I think we've reached the point where a good player of any spec or class has a chance to get a raid slot -- and this is certainly true of a gifted cat player -- but I'm not sure that PvP is in the same universe, let alone the same ballpark.

The druid's always been in an odd place when it comes to this issue, because one of its defining features is being built around class homogenization:
  • The bear is a copy of the warrior, with most bear abilities having a direct counterpart in the warrior skill set.
  • The cat is a copy of the rogue, with most cat abilities having a direct counterpart in the rogue skill set.
  • The moonkin is a somewhat odd hybrid of the mage and warlock ... that used to be able to, uh, melee for mana ... with bear ... armor, that ... okay, moonkin are weird, and they are not necessarily the better for it in arena.
  • Restoration is probably the most unique of the four specs in that it was deliberately built around HoT-style healing, a niche that really hasn't been challenged even to this day.
People have occasionally expressed surprise (or pique) at the extent to which "new" druid skills are direct clones or modifications of abilities already given to their pure class counterparts, but it's not really surprising.

If it makes the warrior work, it will probably help the bear
. Of course, the opposite is also true (they said, nervously awaiting the results of rage normalization).

If it makes the rogue more effective, it will probably help the cat
. Both are melee classes who are fairly fragile in PvP without access to a set of abilities that allows them to control a fight (the rogue) or outlast an opponent (the cat). To a certain extent, I think "hand-me-down" skills from the warrior and rogue are all but inevitable as a result.

PvP is an area in the game where the feral spec has consistently failed to perform well. While you will see fantastically talented feral PvPers out there (and I am still in awe of what players like Azgaz managed to pull off before Wrath), the spec has yet to enjoy the wider success that has embraced our pure-class counterparts, and even the underperforming classes we mentioned earlier (amusingly, the hunter and enhancement shaman seem to have solved a few of each others' arena issues by teaming up to create the dreaded "beast cleave").

The problem with the cat is that it's a copy of a rogue utilizing rogue mechanics without the skills and talents that have allowed the latter to survive situations that aren't favorable to them. The cat inherited the rogue's armor class, combo point system, resource and basic gameplay, but it didn't inherit things like Kick, Preparation, Cloak of Shadows, Blind, Sap, Shadowstep, Dismantle, Vanish or Deadly Throw. For survivability, it's generally assumed that the cat will simply jump into bear form, and to a certain extent that's fine; the feral spec is meant to be played as an amalgam of two animals, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The cat may lack options, but the justification is that the class as a whole doesn't.

But the bear is the solution to problems the rogue would have answered with an ability that allows him/her to exercise control over an opponent -- and the bear doesn't allow you to do this. While the rogue will blow a cooldown in the effort to reset a fight, a cat will shapeshift into a warrior without the warrior's stuns, Mortal Strike or interrupts. Essentially, we are kept busy shifting from a form that lacks the rogue's control over a fight into a form that lacks the warrior's pressure on an opponent. While the addition of Infected Wounds, Feral Charge in cat form, and especially Predator's Swiftness during Wrath has gone a long way toward improving the feral PvP experience, something still feels vaguely off about the cat, as if it's designed to make use of skills that aren't there.

Rogues are now confirmed to be facing the loss of the stun lock in return for more innate survivability in Cataclysm. The ultimate irony of class homogenization may be, not that we need to become more like rogues, but that rogues are becoming more like us.

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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