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Ghostcrawler shares DPS spec design philosophy for Cataclysm

Matthew Rossi

From time to time, we find an interesting forum discussion that manages to elucidate how the past informs the present and future -- specifically, how the design of Wrath of the Lich King has inspired Cataclysm's systems. Poster Klissa asks an interesting question about four specs known to be the bottom-of-the-barrel DPS specs during most of this expansion: the arms warrior, frost mage, subtlety rogue and beast mastery hunter. Klissa asks why, since Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer) has posted on the forums that Blizzard has known for a while that these four specs just weren't cutting it, that they weren't buffed to be made competitive.

As we've come to expect him to, Ghostcrawler responds with a fairly in-depth answer. He covers the difficulty of balancing two or more specs in a class that fulfill the same role and how this experience in Wrath of the Lich King helped guide Blizzard in its systems overhaul for Cataclysm.

I'm going to quote the entire reply in full because it's got implications for the game well beyond Wrath.

Ghostcrawler - Re: Why weren't they fixed?
When there are multiple specs that fill the same role, as is the case for Fire vs. Frost mage or Arms vs. Fury warrior, we have found that some players will play their favored spec because they like the theme or mechanics, as long as the damage difference isn't too significant. Sadly, those players also seem to be in the minority. Many others will respec, regem, etc. for even a slight *theoretical* (very important word there) gain in dps.

If you recall earlier in the LK patch cycle, we attempted to bring Marks and Survival hunters up to the Beastmaster level. We didn't get the numbers quite right though, so what happened is that many hunters felt like they had to switch out of BM and into Survival. (Let's please not turn the rest of this thread into a lecture about how if we had only listened to *your* idea for tweaking hunter damage, everything would have turned out fine.) We heard from many players how frustrating that was -- to wake up one day and have to learn to replay their class because the anointed highest dps spec was now a different tree completely. Players are much more tolerant of huge, sweeping changes between expansions than they are in between patches.

If you look at the patch history of the rest of LK, there were many tweaks to Subtlety, Arms, Frost and BM. We were cautious though, because we were trying to avoid driving everyone who played those classes to have to switch class to class. We were trying to get the dps elevated without going over, and that's just a very small target to hit.

We learned from this mistake though, and part of the overhaul of the talent trees was specifically to make tweaking a lot easier for us. The passive talent tree bonuses are just one example, but we also did things like break our old rules for how spell coefficients relate to things like cast times, and the budget of a talent point in general. We wanted to develop a system that gave us more knobs to adjust and more fine-tuning we could deploy in between expansions to adjust specs that are low without going over.

Here's hoping it works.

There are two very interesting aspects to this answer from my perspective. The first is the idea that player behavior creates feedback that affects design during as well as after an expansion. Not only were these four specs affected by player behavior (i.e., it was player choice that caused the development team to fear going too high with these specs because it had witnessed players' feeling "forced" to switch out of BM to survival when that spec was buffed), but the design of Cataclysm going forward is directly addressing this tendency by giving the developers more knobs to turn, so to speak.

Secondly, the idea that players are willing to completely relearn a class or spec between expansions with much greater tolerance than they are during an expansion has implications for how and when designers can adjust a class or spec that isn't matching up. In fact, this reluctance creates a situation in which, as a designer, you have to aim for gradual increases until you're given the freedom of redesign offered by an expansion patch.

What makes Cataclysm so interesting there is that it is an expansion designed to give more tools for such small corrections during its own life cycle, in effect taking the lessons of The Burning Crusade and Wrath and incorporating them into the systems of the game itself. Since we know small corrections will have to be made and that very often those small corrections will have unforeseen consequences (like making one spec overtake another), one of the goals of Cataclysm's design becomes incorporating more hooks for the design to be adjusted around, to prevent players from feeling forced to switch specs to be competitive.

The idea of designing the game to alleviate that aspect, to make it less likely that players will be frustrated by waking up and being forced to relearn their class, is definitely a pretty large shift for the game. If it works, it could create a World of Warcraft unlike anything we've ever seen in the six years of its history -- one that has learned from itself.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will destroy Azeroth as we know it; nothing will be the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion (available Dec. 7, 2010), from brand new races to revamped quests and zones. Visit our Cataclysm news category for the most recent posts having to do with the Cataclysm expansion.

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