Expansions, redesign, and the balance of WoW

Between Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, the warlock class saw a near-total redesign that, at this distant remove, we'd have to admit was a runaway success. Class redesigns are always a risky proposition - the dilemma is always between those who find the class reinvigorated and those that liked the class as it was, who now find it unfamiliar and undesirable to play.

The reason I bring this up is because lately, while playing Reaper of Souls, I keep thinking about that warlock redesign and the fact that in RoS Blizzard managed to take a game people generally felt was an unsuccessful sequel and change it in a variety of ways, and in the process so utterly remake people's opinions of it that we get reviews like this in Forbes. This has me thinking about whether or not World of Warcraft is going to see this kind of radical redesign in Warlords of Draenor or not. On the face of it, we're aware of a lot of changes coming - the removal of reforging, stats like hit and expertise, the deflation of stats on gear, health and healing changes - but there's still a lot we don't know about how thorough the redesign of the game is going to be.

Now, to be fair, RoS didn't make any significant mechanical changes - certainly nothing as dramatic as the warlock redesign was. And the warlock redesign came at a time when talents were completely overhauled as well. Clearly, there are various kinds of redesign in any expansion, but how does Warlords of Draenor compare? While we don't have a complete answer, we can compare it to previous expansions.

For starters, the complete talent overhaul in Mists of Pandaria was a continuation of the Cataclysm reduction of talents - in many ways, Mists simply continued in the same line as its predecessor. I'd call it a moderate redesign overall - talents were heavily revamped, gear was changed (melee classes lost their ranged weapons/relic slot, while hunters lost their melee weapon) and the monk was introduced, but it was a less significant redesign than the 1-60 revamp was in terms of total change. While Cataclysm didn't change class mechanics nearly as much as Mists of Pandaria did, I'd call it a heavy redesign of the overall game. Yet, this ignores new elements like scenarios that were introduced in Mists of Pandaria and which provided an entirely new kind of small group content. The point is, it's hard to really say 'this expansion changed more than that one did' and feel secure in that judgment.

I'm not ignorant of the fact that I'm compressing and eliding the amount of change in each expansion, either. I know there was a lot more that I'm forgetting or not covering - PvP changes, changes to specific class mechanics, changes to how itemization worked. New stats, new class abilities. Expansions bring a lot more change than is immediately apparent.

In comparison, The Burning Crusade was also a moderate redesign - certain classes were changed to be viable tanks, the Badge of Justice implementation, heroic dungeons, 10 and 25 man raiding, rage normalization, and the introduction of two new races (and each faction getting the formerly unique classes from the other faction) were all fairly significant changes. Both BC and Mists introduced entirely new continents with new content, while Cataclysm mixed new max level content with heavily redesigned content at the 1 to 60 level. Again, we get into the difficulties of judging which expansion changed the game more. And what about Wrath of the Lich King, you may ask?

While new talents and abilities were offered. it's fair to say that no one really felt like their class was an entirely new class in terms of how it felt to play - certainly no class was nearly so changed as the Mists warlock. Unless they rerolled to a death knight, anyway. Northrend was as extensive a new continent (with many, many zones worth of content) but in terms of redesigning the game, Wrath of the Lich King mainly changed the way raiding worked by making every raid instance have a 10 and 25 man version, introducing heroic modes, introducing the dungeon finder and many other additions like Lake Wintergrasp, the first dedicated world PvP zone rather than a battleground.

The question then becomes just how radical could a redesign get via an expansion? The conventional wisdom is always that small iterative tweaks take place during an expansion's cycle, while bigger game changes (like the ones we already know about for Warlords) debut with a leveling cycle to give players a chance to get used to them. The warlock redesign would have been disastrous had it debuted at max level, especially between content tiers. But this makes me wonder how far this could be pushed - how far can we take redesign? Content has been established as mutable by this point - any content can be taken and changed, removed, redesigned and implemented. We can see entire old raids and instances refreshed and updated. We can see entire zones changed. We of course expect to get entirely new content. We could be expected to absorb a new class, or a fairly thorough redesign of a current class' mechanics. What races can play what classes can also be on the block.

So, it would appear that nothing is actually sacred - WoW has established that it can change any aspect of the game in an expansion. Is there a limit to how much it can, or should, change in an expansion? Besides the limitation that time imposes - you have to curtail some things just to get the game out of the box and into people's computers - is there any change that would be too great for an expansion, or any amount of those changes that would seem too severe?

I think about this when seeing players discuss their classes, how they feel about certain features (some of which are very established, like combo points for rogues) and I wonder - even if there was time to do a complete class overhaul on all classes in WoW, could the game sustain interest if it did so? Or is that too much change for players to absorb? The paladin is often held up as an example of a class that lost quite a few old school players who were used to its old mechanics once Holy Power was established. Some players picked up the class, and it stayed very popular, but there were definitely those that no longer liked how it felt or played.

It's interesting to consider because Warlords is bringing in changes that are beneath the hood changes, updates to classic parts of the game like how quests reward us, that are hard to quantify. The idea of the game changing too much for players isn't new - the constant discussion of legacy servers hearkens back to the fact that for some people, the game hit a perfect sweet spot in the past, and then changed into something less ideal for them. And since that time is different for different people (the player who idealizes Burning Crusade versus the player who loved Wrath, vs. that player who is loving Mists right now) the game is constantly changing from something someone loves into something someone else may love better.