Since the advent of raiding, every class's contributions to the success of the raid can be divided into two categories. The first and most important is primary role, which everyone is familiar with: feral and balance druids DPS, restoration druids heal, and guardian druids tank. Now, the effectiveness of those classes in performing those roles has varied over time, and is a frequent topic of discussion, but that's not what I'm looking at today. Everything a class does when they're NOT performing their primary class role is loosely defined as "utility."
The importance of utility has significantly fallen over time. Classic and Burning Crusade raiding featured several encounters or entire raids that emphasized class utility, with the most prominent example being the stacking of shaman in Sunwell Plateau. With Wrath of the Lich King, though, came a new focus on accessibility and "bring the player, not the class." While this model was successful at its goals, a natural consequence was the dilution of utility to thwart class stacking. Powerful exclusive class abilities, such as Rebirth, Replenishment, and Bloodlust/Heroism, were granted to other classes. This led to a new problem; namely, homogenization. It was not an enviable task, by any means: how do you balance classes while still giving them abilities that have meaningful differences?
Cataclysm took some initial steps towards solving this problem. Certain talents, such as Fury of Stormrage for restoration druids, or Telluric Currents for restoration shaman, encouraged the use of off-spec abilities. Other class-wise abilities were adjusted to make them useful to all specs. Some specs became exceptionally hybrid capable; for example, druids have a viable feral spec that can tank or DPS as a raid-acceptable level, while discipline priests can heal and DPS simultaneously via Atonement.
Not everyone was happy with this, though. With every announced change that increased hybrid potential, a significant number of players protested, but none more vociferously than druids. This is largely because Blizzard (and misguided players) have continued to cite druids as the model for hybrid behavior, when in fact there are two major issues for druids preventing the more widespread adoption of hybrid gameplay.
First, many players just don't like the idea. Just because something was possible doesn't mean that it's desired. The strength of the feral hybrid spec for Cataclysm meant that many feral players were forced, for minmax reasons, into the OT/DPS flex role. Many people liked it, but those who would prefer to just tank or just DPS did not. These players are fine with weak off-spec capabilities, but if a stronger version is introduced, they'll feel forced to make use of it to help their raid, even if they don't want to.
Second, there is currently a high opportunity cost involved in shapeshifting. Many of the useful utility abilities possessed by druids require a certain form, which dramatically increases the cost of using that ability. This isn't as much of a big deal for feral or balance; losing a few seconds of DPS is generally not a significant problem to the raid (heroic raiding with tight enrage timers are a different story, but we'll discuss that in a moment). Losing a healer for a few seconds, however, is difficult, and losing the tank for any length of time is devastating. Ask any bear who's tried to Rebirth a healer between boss swings and gotten whacked how much utility they have.
Compounding this issue is resource requirements. Resto/Balance druids often have feral abilities they'd like to use in a pinch, but the costs are just too great. If I want to interrupt something as a resto druid, for example, I have to shift to a feral form, generate the energy/rage, use the interrupt, then shift back. Healers can't afford to waste that much time; hence the feral abilities often go unused for the casters.
This brings us to the announced Mists of Pandaria talents, which begin to show solutions for this problem. Many of the proposed new abilities can function in any form, which mitigates the opportunity cost issue I presented above. Hopefully, they will continue this trend by tying armor/stamina/crit resistance boosts to the guardian spec, and minimize the bonuses provided by Bear Form. This will allow guardian druids to occasionally shift out and use other abilities without worrying about eating a monster boss hit and dying.
Unfortunately, the social problem is harder to solve. The mindset of "I'm a , therefore all I do is this" will be quite difficult to break for the community as a whole. This isn't just an individual problem; as others have correctly noted, the raiding game is very numbers-driven. Shifting out to "clutch-heal," or possibly just picking the talent that allows you to do so, will significantly reduce your overall DPS. Sure, you may have saved the raid, but will your raid leader pick up on that, or will they only see the numbers?
Personally, my opinion on this is very mixed. I love the idea of hybridization; however, it's a concept that's very difficult to balance with the way the game is currently designed with rigid class roles. What do you think? Let me know in the comments!
Looking for the latest and greatest in feral cat druid guides? Shifting Perspectives has the answers! Check out our cat 101 for Cataclysm. Also don't miss gearing your cat for Firelands raiding, addons for cat druids and raiding strats for feral cats, as well as our feral cat Firelands boss strats.