Encrypted Text: Are rogues truly an unpopular class?

Scott Helfand
S. Helfand|02.26.14

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Encrypted Text: Are rogues truly an unpopular class?
Ruffy vs. the Day Off
Every week or two, WoW Insider brings you Encrypted Text for assassination, combat and subtlety rogues. Scott Helfand (@sveltekumquat) will be your shadow on this treacherous journey; try not to keep your back turned for too long, and make sure your valuables are stashed somewhere safe.

It is a lament that we, the ever-beleaguered players of the ever-shunned, ever-maligned, ever-misunderstood rogue class, often turn to when we're feeling glum.

Nobody plays a rogue.

We're WoW's most-hated, least-popular class. We never get the changes we need, so the class just continues to decay, month after month, patch after patch, year after year. If Blizzard hates us so much, why don't they just remove the class entirely already? Monks and ferals already have all the stuff we want anyway.

Nobody. Plays. A rogue.

... Right?

You guys should know me well enough by now to know my answer.

Rogues: Rising Out of the Mists. Kind Of.

A funny thing happened on our way through Pandaria: Rogues grew in popularity.

A gentleman known far and wide as Cynwise is the WoW community's most reliable, trusted source of class population summaries. For years, he has been taking snapshots of class numbers from Realm Pop and World of Wargraphs, and from them sewn together a quilt depicting how those numbers have changed over time.

One quick caveat: We players don't know what the actual number of characters within each class is; only Blizzard does. Realm Pop and WoWGraphs are very good resources and we should be grateful they exist, but both use imperfect methods to collect their data. They likely omit a fair number of toons from their sweep.

That said, the census numbers that Cynwise has pulled throughout this expansion (he published his latest recap in mid-January) are still valuable and interesting. They show two results that may seem to contradict each other:
  • Rogues began Mists as the least-played class overall (not including monks, of course), and they're going to end the expansion in the same spot.
  • The number of rogues grew faster than any other class during Mists.
Class Popularity at Endgame line graph, by Cynwise
Seems kinda weird, right? Cynwise found that early in Mists, rogues made up only 5.6% of all max-level characters -- a far cry from paladins, who ruled the roost at 12.3% of all Level 90s.

That was more than a year ago. As of last month, rogues made up 6.6% of all max-level characters, the latest milepost in a small but steady increase throughout the life of the expansion. Paladins? Now at 11.1%.

I know what you're probably thinking: I am seriously trying to spray a tremendous amount of air freshener on this honking chunk of bat guano.

But maybe I can explain this another way.

The Destination Isn't Our Problem. The Journey Might Be.

I've long been inspired by Cynwise's analyses. So last year, after reading one of his updates that showed the rogue class languishing in the cellar, I decided I wanted to explore a few issues a little more closely. The first question I wanted to answer was: Does this hold true at every XP level from 1 through 90?

So I made my own gimungoid spreadsheet, and I started stuffing bunches of U.S. WoW census data into it every so often. I most recently updated it this week. Here are some of the key things I've seen:

Rogues are not the least-played class. As unpopular as they may be at Level 90, rogues are not the least popular non-monk class overall. They're not even second.

RealmPop shows that, within the U.S., 8.6% of all toons are rogues at the moment. That's more than shaman (7.6%) -- and, even more notably, it's more than warlocks (8.1%).

Warlocks, guys. Rogues are more popular overall right now than the class that got a massive overhaul for Mists -- the kind of overhaul that many rogue players have loudly called for their class to get as well, on the grounds that the rogue is old and stale and unpopular. Armed with this new information, ask yourself: Are you sure a class overhaul will truly give you what you're looking for?

Rogues start out very strong. At early levels, rogues are actually one of the most popular classes to play. At Level 10, 11.2% of characters are rogues, second only to our longtime nemeses, those dastardly hunters (14.8%). At Level 20, 11% of toons are still rogues.

To me, this destroys the idea held by many that people shy away from rogues in WoW because they have an image as evil and underhanded, played only by people with little sense of personal ethics or justice. I never felt that was a widely held stereotype to begin with (although I don't doubt plenty of players have their own harrowing "I Was Ganked By a Ninja" stories to tell), but c'mon, let's be honest: Even if it were true, how many of us don't love to sometimes play the bad guy in video games?

At some point, the rogue honeymoon ends. Once we get into the 20s and beyond, that's where we begin to see the population really take a hit. At Level 30, rogues currently make up about 10% of all characters. By Level 50, that's down to around 9%. At level 80, we're a bit above 8%. By Level 90, we're below 7%.

rogues as a % of the population, level by level -- line chart

(Those hills you see in the chart are at traditional twink levels -- 19, 29, etc., where rogues have long been popular. The huge valley is where all those Death Knights reside that never got past the starting zone, mine included.)

Something is happening during the leveling process that progressively turns people off of their rogues and makes them decide to shift to other classes. Exploring why this is could easily fill up another column, but I've already touched on what I feel are the two big ones:
  • Leveling a rogue is simply not like leveling other classes. Many people have trouble making that adjustment, and I think the game doesn't do enough to help players understand many of the basics.
  • Rogue attack animations and movements are so subtle that the gameplay can start to feel dull, especially if you keep your camera zoomed out. You push buttons, things die. More buttons, more dead things. If rogues looked and felt more exciting to play, more people would stick with them, I feel.

Any Way You Cut It, Rogues Aren't "Unpopular"

Here's the thing about WoW, guys: It is really, really big. We can lament all we want that the rogue class is dying because only around 6% of all Level 90 toons are rogues compared to 12% being those cursed hunters, but you know what? That still means there are a ton of rogues out there.

According to Realm Pop, there are currently 1.2 million rogue characters in the U.S. alone. A quarter of a million of them are at Level 90. Forget about comparing us to other classes for a moment: That is a lot of rogues. And Realm Pop probably isn't even spotting them all, due to limitations in how it pulls such data.

It also seems that, increasingly, people who decided against leveling rogues early in Mists are coming back to them as the expansion has stretched on. Remember that comparison I made to paladins early in this column -- how in Cynwise's analysis, rogues went from 5.6% to 6.6% of all Level 90 toons, while Paladins dropped from 12.3% to 11.1%?

Well, it ain't just paladins. Almost every class saw its share of Level 90 characters either decline or hold steady during the course of Mists. Hunters and warlocks saw increases -- but not as much as rogues did. Consistently, month after month, patch after patch, rogues continued to sneak up on every other class (which suggests they're at least a popular choice among people rolling alts). And I don't think they wanna know what we'll do when we catch them.

So here's the thing to keep in mind when you're coming up with ideas for how to change WoW, or change our class, or change much of anything, really: Don't be so sure about the facts you think you know. Do the research. Ask questions. Use trusted resources, and know what makes them trustworthy (and where they may fall short).

And, more than anything else, remember that your opinion is your own. We can guess and ponder until the Eviscerated cows come home about what those 1.2 million other U.S. rogues want to change about their class, but we don't really know. It's not our job to know. It's our job to tell Blizzard what we like about our rogues, or why we stopped playing them. It's their job to decide what to do about it -- and then each of us can tell them, once more, how we feel about what they've decided.

You are a WoW player. You are a rogue. Your gameplay experiences matter, and your opinions matter. Use them, and express them, wisely. They deserve for you to treat them with as much respect as you treat your restless blades.
Sneak in every Wednesday or two for an early glance at rogues in the upcoming expansion, a look at the eight key things you should keep in mind when leveling your rogue -- and of course, the answer to why we'll always be the bad guys.
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