Monday, October 31, 2011

The 5.0 Talent System: A Critique

A few days I ago I sat down and really looked at the new talent tree for 5.0 / MoP for Death Knights and what we have to look forward to in the next 12 months or so. I will admit that some of the abilities are really interesting and I look forward to experiencing them. Being a DK that mainly plays PvE content I felt a bit short changed by the Cataclysm abilities, which doesn’t appear to be happening again.

Even though I’m excited for the new talents, there was something that was bothering me about the new lay out and delivery system. As I sat there watching the Blizzcon coverage that explained how the new talent system worked, as well as the total class coverage I began to analyze talents from both a players perspective and Blizzards. I understand this is as much a business to Blizzard as it is a game to the players, however when there is something I disagree with I have the unique advantage of blogging about it.

I have to say I’m really not in favor of the new talent tree idea laid out at Blizzcon. I’ve read some posts on this topic already and it seems many people are excited for the talents but disappointed with the talent tree – I totally agree. More after the jump.

What Blizzard Wants To Accomplish
I understand what Blizzard is trying to do, I really do. In the simplest vernacular, they want talent tree abilities to yield the same outcome with the emphasis on your play style which determines which choice you make. They want to combat the “cookie cutter” specs, which outline which talents to take and which ones to avoid in order to maximize your performance. Blizzard understands that this play style (known as min-maxing) does appeal to some players, but not to the majority. By introducing this new talent system, they are hoping to make each choice fun, customizable, yet totally irrelevant to how you can perform your job.

How They Failed
The overall direction of reducing the talent tree couldn’t have been a worse direction to follow in order to combat cookie cutter specs. No matter how much they try to homogenize the yield on three very similar choices, one clear winner will always immerge in almost every situation. What does this mean? We are right back to cookie cutter. Blizzard wanted to give us the feeling of out talent choices being 100% customizable, but the actually are moving us in the opposite direction. Let’s take a look at three recent talent models over the last few years.

The first is the 71 point tree at level 80. The second is the 41 point tree at level 85. The last is the 6 point tree at level 90. For the sake of illustration I’ll use a math example. Be warned, these figures are just estimation for the sake of illustration so be open minded. In terms of representation, I’ll attempt to show the percentage of “free” or options that are customization only.

Optional Points / Total Points = Percentage of Customization

15 / 71 = 21%

5 / 41 = 12%

Mists of Pandaria
0 / 6 = 0%

So there we have it. In attempts to make our talent choices 100% customizable, they have effective reduced the freedom of choice we have. They have created the ULTIMATE cookie cutter system.

Our freedom of choice isn’t the only thing that suffers from this new talent system. I can’t surely belong to a minority when I say leveling is painful at best. I remember back before the dungeon finder when one would level mainly via questing….I remember just how much of a painful grind that was. My reward for finishing a level worth of EXP was a shiny new talent point to plop down into my tree. Now each talent point didn’t always reward an ability or something exciting, however the longest I would have to wait on something juicy would be about 5 levels. Even after the talent tree reduction for Cataclysm we still could make a fun and tangible choice every few levels.

Herein lies the second issue I have with the new system. Given that all specs of a class are now consolidated within the same tree, we could very well be waiting upwards of 30 levels for something tangible to do! This is more apparent for the hybrid classes, for example the Paladin. We have one whole tier that brings an exciting healing ability and another that brings a fun tanking ability. While this is exciting when it’s “your turn”, when it’s not you are waiting 30 levels to make another relevant decision. I will concede this might be less of an issue while leveling (for example, getting a healing choice while leveling always helps reduce downtime) but to tailor the talent tree system JUST for one aspect of the game seems against the whole spirit of the change in the first place!

In my humble opinion this is why Blizzard has failed. It lowers the amount of customization we as players have for our chosen class and spec, it pigeonholes us even more into an ultimate cookie cutter situation, and finally it removes a large portion of tangible reward we as players experience during level.

How To Improve It
Blizzard does have TONS of smart people working for it. For the most part they understand the customer base and what we want as consumers. They have to know that consumers today are all about instant gratification. In fact, they have shown us that they DO understand this time and time again by implementing things in game (dungeon finder, lower XP and REP requirements, and literally hundreds of UI enhancements) that showcase this beautifully. To shift the timing of gratification on a talent system (rewarded by gaining levels) to a more long term model really shows a lack of that understanding.

Leveling itself is probably the most quintessential aspect of this game; you can’t really participate in end game without first tackling the leveling game. So a function that literally EVERY play has to interact with should be as rewarding as possible. Talent points every level (or to a lesser degree every few) were a great way to provide instant gratification for the 99.99% of your player base. Those oddballs that hang out in the Valley of Trials…screw them! Let me be clear by stating I do not advocate going back to the huge 71 point talent trees, there is always an accord to be struck in balance.

The second part of this metric fuckton of a puzzle laid out before us is much more complicated that I could ever hope to solve by myself. If I could, then I would already be working for Blizzard and not writing this blog. I’m talking about the issue of combating cookie cutter specs without consolidating the trees down to the 6 point incantation. That level of balance (meaning to make suites of talents attractive to players that affect play style but not the outcome of overall performance) is something that would take a near impossible amount of time and resources on behalf of Blizzard and we’d never see another expansion….ever.

So What Is The Solution?
The old proverb “if it’s not broken don’t fix it” plays a bit into my feelings on the issue. Is the current system SO detrimental it requires a massive overhaul? I personally don’t think so. Of course I understand in this situation it’s a bit less binary than working / non-working but I still think it’s a valid point. Blizzard has said over and over that changes made to the game are not based on those top hardcore elite guilds, but rather on the side of majority rules. Are the majority of players in guilds / arena teams that are sidelining them over a few talent choices in a 41 point tree? While I’m not statistician I would hardly venture a guess that is the case. Balance will continue to be an issue, which is a by product of PvP / PvE not because of talent trees.

Naturally, I’m a highly adaptable player and will venture forth regardless of which route Blizzard takes – I just sincerely hope they reconsider this before Mist of Pandaria.

1 comment:

Fenix said...

I am gonna have to disagree with you killer, at least as a mage. The talents we had preview of showed 4 out of the 6 talent tiers had multiple good choices for both PvE and PvP. Now of course each class is going to have certain talent choices be less choice and more "cookie cutter," but the mage's, for now, is pretty solid in my opinion.

I can see, however, your issues with the hybrid classes (anything now a Mage, Hunter, Warlock, or Rogue) having a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to making choices for your chosen role. I see it but I don't agree with it. Okay, so your talent tiers have a single role in mind for each tier. Just because a retribution paladin has to pick from 3 healing talents doesn't mean that's a bad thing. Hybrids bring utility that pure DPS classes can't, and the talents in this case are designed to further that ability. One ret pally takes the single target bomb heal and another takes the AoE heal or a shield based on heals. Same with tanking. A tank that can bomb heal himself? AWESOME.

I understand people don't like change, and the saying "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," but as far as Blizzard is concerned it IS broken because it isn't doing what they want it to do. Did they find the most suitable fix? Maybe, maybe not, but until roll out of MoP, I think I will cut the smart people at Blizz some slack and see what they come up with. We have a LONG time until MoP and changes are the hallmark of every ex-pack so far.