Monday, August 12, 2013

Community Blog Topic: Adding fourth specs to WoW

You'd think this was turning into a WoW blog, but it really isn't. I have all kinds of other things to write about. For example . . . um . . .

Hey look, another WoW blog topic!
With 11 classes, 34 total specializations, and 13 different races, you have plenty of options for the game. A few more couldn't hurt . . . right?
If you aren't familiar with the class specializations in WoW, let's start at the beginning.

WoW has always had three specializations (specs) for the classes.  These would allow you to distinguish your character from others of the same class, as well as offering different gameplay.  This could be minor, such as the difference between two different DPS specs, or it could be major, such as the difference between a tanking and a healing spec.

A few classes have bucked the three-spec rule at various times.  Death Knights started out in Wrath of the Lich King where each of the three specs could be a tank or a DPS spec.  Blizzard eventually removed this capability, making one spec exclusively a tank spec, while the other two stayed DPS.  Druids always had three specs, but the original melee spec, Feral, supported two druid playstyles and shapeshift forms.  Cat form was the druid melee DPS, while bear form was the druid tank.  Although each spec had its own talent tree, most of the abilities in the druid talent tree had caveats in the form of, "If you are in Bear form, X; if you are in Cat form, Y."  Eventually, Blizzard simplified this by making each a separate spec, resulting in druids being the only class in WoW to have four specs.

The question of how to add a fourth spec to the other classes has been a popular topic of speculation since that change.  I certainly wouldn't mind it being done, although it's not like we lack for options in the game as is.   Where I'll disagree with others when this topic is broached is in the right way to make it happen.  As I see it, there are a few principles to consider in any proposed changes to the classes:
  1. Does it fit with the lore/theme/flavor of the class?
  2. Does it require changing the mechanics of the class?
  3. Does it require changes to any other game features?
  4. Does it fill a niche, or conflict with existing archetypes?
  5. Is it intuitive to new and/or existing players?
To my mind, most of the ideas floated for new specs clash with at least one of the questions above. Some simply don't fit thematically, either in WoW or with classic fantasy tropes. Others would mandate adding a lot of new abilities to the classes, to the point that the classes might not be recognizable for it. Asking for certain pieces of gear to have more demand is fine, but generating unheard of themes for the classes is the wrong solution.

I won't say some of these ideas would never be introduced, or that it would be impossible to change the game to make these things possible, but their implementation would be significantly more complicated than many people realize.

All the same, some of these ideas aren't without merit. I'd like to address most of the most popular suggestions for new class specs. You might want to get comfy.

Ranged DPS
Currently, Death Knights have two melee DPS specs, and one tanking spec.  One of the most popular suggestions is a caster-spec, with the Death Knight acting like a necromancer, slinging spells from a distance and raising undead minions.

Why it would work - This is usually accompanied by complaints about spell plate, currently worn only by Holy Paladins.  It would certainly be good for another class to use the gear.  Death Knights could even dual-wield caster weapons.  

Why it wouldn't work - Although the game is missing a Necromancer-like role for any of the players, it would go against the grain of the class to do this.  The Death Knights in the game are powerful necromantic warriors, shock troops using rune weapons and dark magic to crush the front lines of the enemy.  Having them stand back and lob magic isn't really holding to the flavor of the class.

In addition, the class already has a spec that focuses on higher magical damage, Unholy.  You could shift the focus of Unholy to the undead minion it brings, but the spec might lose some of its distinctiveness in the process.

Melee DPS
Hunters started with the ability to use both melee and ranged weapons.  Since most of the class's attacks were with the gun/bow, the melee weapons were there to provide more stats and to act as an emergency option if the hunter had to be in melee combat.  (Hunters then could only shoot at a minimum range.) It's even said that the Survival spec was originally meant to be a melee spec, but that never materialized in the game. Blizzard has since removed the minimum firing range and the need for hunters to use melee weapons.  Still, hunters could use melee weapons again and join their pets in the thick of battle.

Why it would work - Well, hunters can still wield melee weapons if they wanted to.  The traditional Ranger fantasy archetype allows for melee or ranged combat.

Why it wouldn't work - The current hunter toolkit is almost entirely ranged attacks; making a melee hunter would almost be like inventing a new class whole-cloth. Special care would have to be given to preventing it from becoming "rogue with a pet."

Hunter pets can already perform a bit of tanking, although not at the level of a tank-spec player. Players have been asking for Blizzard to make Hunter pet-tanking a legitimate spec.

Why it would work - If a Druid can tank as a bear, I don't see why a Hunter's bear pet couldn't do it. The ground work has already been laid with years of players using their pets as tanks for solo content or in an emergency in group content.

Why it wouldn't work - Hunter pets have a very small, if functional, set of tanking abilities.  You'd need to give them a full toolkit to be effective tanks.

The real hindrance here is how the player would actively play the tank. The current Hunter playstyle wouldn't fly; you'd literally have a tank that runs on autopilot.  If the player took direct control of the pet, you've essentially replicated a Druid tank.  What happens to the Hunter as well?  Does it stand there, idle, while the player controls the pet?  Does it vanish into the ether?  These are important design considerations with no simple answer.

Just a quick word on this: People have asked for a Mage healing spec, since all three specs of the class right now are ranged DPS focusing on different classes of magic. Although there's room for this sort of variety in the class, there's little precedent for this in the game, and the toolkit for the spec would have to be created out of nothing.  I'm not going to say this would never happen, but it seems highly unlikely.

Melee DPS
Although Mages cast ranged spells, they do technically carry melee weapons, even if they are mostly cosmetic. It's not hard to imagine those becoming functional.

Why it would work - Battlemages usually wear heavy armor, but there is room for a gish archetype in the game. 

Why it wouldn't work - Once again, no existing toolkit and no in-game precedent. Although the idea gets floated frequently that existing spells could have new effects at melee range, Blizzard has moved away from spells with such extreme situational modifiers; they're just not very intuitive.

Wand DPS
This idea floats about for all of the wand-wielding classes, but I'll cover it here.  Wands have always been a ranged weapon that saw little use beyond stat-stick. One frequent suggestion is to add a spec that acts like a hunter, using the weapon to channel their various attacks.

Why it would work - It's certainly been a problem that caster weapons are completely superfluous, there only to provide appearance and stats.  This would make headway into changing that. The archetype of the caster whose spells depend on his implement wouldn't be new, either.

Why it wouldn't work - New toolkit, situational spell modifiers, etc. Blizzard keeps saying they don't want the classes to be unrecognizable every time a new expansion drops.

Ranged DPS
Monks are the newest class in WoW, so you'd think there wouldn't be much missing from them. The class is centered around hand-to-hand martial combat. Although it already has a melee DPS spec, it could feasibly have a second; Rogues seem to do fine with three of them.  I'm not sure what this would be, however; it could focus on weapon strikes rather than unarmed combat, but that doesn't seem like it keeps with the flavor of the class.

The one missing playstyle for Monks, however, is ranged DPS.  As they're a (mostly) martial class, it seems most sensible to give them ranged weapons rather than making them offensive casters.

Why it would work - It fits thematically for an eastern warrior to use ranged weapons; there are certainly plenty of Shado-Pan archers around Pandaria. Monks are also an agility class, so it wouldn't be necessary to change the itemization of the gear. Blizzard removed throwing weapons, but this would be a fine spec to make use of them again.

Why it wouldn't work - You think the class focused on hand-to-hand combat has a diverse toolkit for ranged attacks?

Ranged DPS
As I said above, healing Paladins are the only ones that use spell plate armor. During the Burning Crusade expansion, it was fairly popular to use a "shockadin" spec, where the Holy Paladin used his few ranged attacks to act like a DPS rather than a healer. There's certainly a lot of cries from some players to officially bring back the playstyle.

Why it would work - For a melee class, Paladins already have a number of ranged attacks (albeit spread out across the specs.) You wouldn't have to add too much to the class to give the spec a full compliment of abilities. Plus, more demand for spell plate would be welcomed by a lot of players.

Why it wouldn't work -  Like with Death Knights, it goes against the flavor of the class to be a caster rather than a melee fighter. Just because the mechanics came together to allow it for a short time doesn't mean it fits the class.

Melee Shield DPS
Right now, all of the specs in the game that make use of shields are either tanks or casters. Why not put a shield in the hands of an offensive melee combatant?

Why it would work - This is a definite hole in the various niches in the game. You wouldn't have to add much to the toolkit of the class, either, although some diversification would be necessary to keep it from being too similar to the current specs.

Why it wouldn't work - Shields are itemized for tanking or casting. If Shield DPS is going to be a strength-based class, then Blizzard has to remove tank stats from the shields. If Shield DPS is going to use caster shields (and gear), the stats melee classes rely on, expertise in particular, would be sorely lacking. Something's gotta give.

Holy DPS
The comments above for Mages regarding melee or wand specs both apply for priests, but one notable absence in the Priest arsenal is holy magic. Shadow, the Priest DPS spec, can't use holy magic. The other two specs are healing specs, so their offensive spells are stop-gap measures. It would make sense for a DPS spec that actually uses holy magic to exist.

Why it would work - It fits thematically, there's plenty of precedent in the game, and there's already half a toolkit available.

Why it wouldn't work - There are already a lot of caster DPS specs in the game. Making this one feel unique would be a challenge.

Although Rogues usually come in the sneaky, back-stabbing variety, the swashbuckling duelist is also a trope found in WoW. People who stacked enough dodge and agility back in Burning Crusade actually came close to making Rogue tanking a possible path.

Why it would work  - Agility leather tanks already exist in the form of Druids and Monks. The basic mechanics are there.

Why it wouldn't work - WoW Rogues focus heavily on the stealthy, shadowy assassin style, regardless of how the specs are described. A Rogue that purposefully draws out the enemy would really go against the style and flavor of the class as it currently exists.

Ranged DPS
Hunters fill several thematic niches in WoW, not the least of which is archer/rifleman and beastmaster. People often ask for a spec, Hunter or otherwise, which uses the ranged weapons but doesn't use a pet. A Rogue "sniper" would be a suitable way to fill that niche.

Why it would work - The stealthy assassin vibe works really well with a ranged attacker. Guns and bows are already agility weapons, so the itemization is already there.

Why it wouldn't work - Rogues almost entirely lack a ranged toolkit, and their poisoned weapon mechanic wouldn't jive well with ranged weapons. (Yes, poisoned arrows make sense, but poisoned bullets just seems silly.) The real issue would come from game balance. One of the things that balances the Rogues' stealth is that they're vulnerable in combat after they become visible. A Rogue who could attack at long range stealthily would be a very difficult opponent.

Look, I love Mishka as a character, but no.

Wait, is the plural "Shaman" or "Shamans?" Or maybe "Shamen?" Regardless, people of a shamanistic persuasion already have melee and ranged DPS specs, as well as healing. They have several tools in their arsenal for emergency tanking, including the ability to wield shields. Blizzard even said at launch that Shaman were intended to be part-time tanks, making them competitive with Paladins.

Why it would work - The lore fits very well. Shamanism reveres the elements (Earth, Wind, and Fire. Oh, and Water.) Although there is no official connection between the elements and the specs, wind tends to associate somewhat with melee DPS, fire with ranged DPS, and water with healing. Earth has been associated with tanking and defending, so it would round out the class to bring in a tanking spec.

Why it wouldn't work - As with the Paladin shield DPS above, you'd have to determine what gear this class will wear. Shaman already use either agility or intellect mail; there are no agility shields, but intellect-gearing would leave the Shaman wanting for expertise. Shaman could forgo shields, similar to Druids or Death Knights, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

Warlocks tend to be the caster-equivalent of Hunters, ranged DPS dependent on their demonic minions to boost their damage. Demonology-spec Warlocks, however, can frequently transform into a demon themselves, giving them many tanking tools. This has lead to a lot of speculation about Warlocks becoming tanks full-time, in spite of the spotty history of Warlock pet-tanking..

Why it would work - Although a lot of propositions are made for cloth-wearing tanks, Mage or Priest, Warlocks fit the mold the most. They already have a toolkit available, and their ability to transform into a hulking demon sort of suggests a lurking resilience.

Why it wouldn't work - Cloth gear carries no melee stats, and it would need to happen for Warlocks to become full time tanks. Warlock tanks would also have the Druid problem wherein you never see your character's fancy-looking gear, but a transformation that never varies in appearance.

Ranged DPS
Warriors and Rogues both used ranged weapons in the past, mostly for the stats they provided. These weren't just bows or guns, but throwing weapons as well, hammers and axes for the Warriors. A Warrior spec that used either firing or throwing weapons would be quite interesting.

Why it would work - Warriors encompass a number of fantasy tropes:  The armored juggernaut, the weaponmaster, the dutiful soldier, the frenzied barbarian. That last one seems suitable for a spec that throws weapons. The stalwart soldier would be a suitable rifleman as well.

Why it wouldn't work - Ranged weapons with strength were made obsolete; bringing them back would be something of a challenge. As for Paladins and Death Knights, a heavily armored class that stands at range is a contradiction. Even the lack of a toolkit aside, Warrior mechanics favor melee combat. It seems like standing at a distance would only exacerbate resource accululation problems for Warriors.

Melee Shield DPS
Everything said for Paladins above applies here, minus the spiel about caster shields. The flavor, the toolkit, the gearing, everything works right for a Warrior to grab a sword-and-board and crack some skulls, barring any tank stats on the shield.