Complexity of systems and player retention

Matthew Rossi
M. Rossi|04.14.12

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Complexity of systems and player retention
If you don't read Cynwise's Warcraft Journal, you probably should. Cyn's been doing an excellent series of posts about warlocks in Cataclysm that are interesting and thought-provoking -- even if, like me, you're not a warlock and don't really know much about the class. For me, one of the most striking tidbits was that rogues are the second-to-least-played class overall, but the second-most-played class in high-end PvP, implying that people only play rogues to PvP. There's a lot of interesting data in there about class representation, role representation, and who is playing what and at what levels.

The post that really grabbed my attention was this one about warlock complexity in Cataclysm because it highlights an extreme form of something we've talked about before, the design philosophy that argues for increased complexity in a character's suite of abilities. In its simplest form, it can be summed up as the hitting buttons is fun argument, although at the extreme Cyn describes for warlocks, it becomes a game of if X, then Y that resembles programming your first computer in Basic. If you remember making a chain of dirty words scroll on a loop up the screen, congratulations on being old with me.

Cyn's comparison of the destruction rotation in Wrath and Cataclysm shows a rotation with seven elements mushroom out to one with 14 elements to remember and consider. That if X, then Y flowchart just got as complex as a subway map. In my experience, all DPS rotations in general have a little bit of this kind of gameplay nowadays. The difficulty is in hitting the sweet spot where the rotation is designed so that random elements or procs serve to liven up an otherwise predictable set of abilities (providing the fun in the hitting buttons scenario) without making a rotation so complex you need six to seven addons to help you plot it out.

How changing a class changes the players

It would be extremely reductionist of Cyn's excellent series of posts to argue that they make the claim that increased rotational complexity is the silver bullet that ties up all the issues around low warlock numbers in Cata. It probably isn't helping, but there are a lot of factors to consider in those posts. But one of the elements I'm drawn to consider for the game as a whole is the concept of how much complexity is a draw to a class versus how much complexity becomes a barrier and how a change in rotational complexity between expansions can affect both players who've never tried a class and ones who have played it for years.

I have recently taken up playing a ret paladin as one of my alts, and I'm in Cataclysm content now. To be frank, before Cata, I couldn't stand paladins, ret or otherwise. I found the Seal/Judge system boring, the attacks derivative of warrior abilities. I just didn't like them. But with the addition of Holy Power, Templar's Verdict, and procs like The Art of War over the years, I suddenly really enjoy the retribution playstyle. I won't pretend I've mastered it, by any stretch of the imagination, but I can run a dungeon, do good DPS, and find keeping an eye on the procs and Holy Power to be just complicated enough to keep my interest. However, at the same time, I can imagine finding the addition of an entirely new resource management system jarring to long-time players, and in a raid situation, I'd probably need an addon to scream at me that I had full Holy Power, because I'd be busy dealing with the encounter's mechanics.

In short, yes, I like hitting buttons on my paladin, but I'd probably like it less if I had to avoid stepping in something or a wave of fire or what have you. And if I'd gotten used to the class the way it was before Holy Power, I'd probably have had a harder time acclimating to the new scheme.

Expansion shift and the drawing board effect

As a warrior player, I've had to relearn the class with every expansion just like everyone who has played one class for the long term. And for me, right now, warriors are probably just about as complex as they can be and still maintain my interest. Some of that complexity is rotational, through the priority queue of abilities and procs, but some of it is artificial complexity in the form of stance switching and multiple abilities that only work in various stances or abilities that do the same thing as another ability that works in a different stance. We saw some of that get cleaned up during Cata's life cycle when Shield Bash was removed and Pummel made to work in all stances, and we're seeing a lot more in Mists of Pandaria with the removal of stance specific ability requirements.

I think to a degree, it's easy for classes to pick up artifacts that apply complexity in an unexciting, artificial way. The complexities of, say, prot warrior tanking are just enough to be engaging, but stance dancing to use an ability isn't, and that's why such complexities are often easily removed without affecting gameplay.

If an element of the class can be removed without any real consequences to the game's play, like Shield Bash was, then the value of having two interrupts on a shared cooldown usable in different stances is outweighed by the value of creating simplicity by removing one of them.

This is exacerbated to some degree by the fact that, the longer you play a class, the more often you've had to entirely relearn it. Even if the changes are good ones, if you've mastered the old system, you may not be willing or able to chuck all that muscle memory and accumulated ideas on how the class should play. One of the reasons I can still enjoy playing a warrior after seven years is that I roll a new one every so often and experience the class the way someone leveling it now would. Since that's not feasible for everyone, a lot of players will find changes in systems they've grown to understand baffling and make the switch to a new class because it feels like wrong learning that, since they actually are new to it.

Your input on system complexity

Now, I don't play every class in the game (not even close), and the ones I do play are either warriors or effectively sorbet I play for a few hours to cleanse the palate. So I can't speak for other classes. Cyn's done an excellent job analyzing how this all plays out for the warlock, and he's convinced me that there could be some simplification for them that would retain the level of complexity that makes the warlock fun.

Here's where you get to chime in. Do you find your class engaging, overly simple, or too complex? Where's the line for you? At what point do you start to feel overwhelmed by the act of just playing your class or role, and how fast does it start to negatively affect your enjoyment of that class?

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.
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