Monday, 25 October 2010

Balanced for whom?

I've been having quite a lot of fun pottering around in the Cata beta, doing all the Alliance quests I never bothered with until now, so it's taken me a while to get round to trying out all the 4.0.1 changes in "real WOW".

As a first step, I tested out my arcane mage to see how the rotation and DPS compared to what it was previously. It seemed like a good place to start - mages are reported to be doing fairly good DPS in 4.0.1 (perhaps a little too much in the case of fire) and I'm fairly familiar with the arcane changes and the glyphs needed. Straight off the block, without much practice, I'm doing comparable DPS with arcane to before, with my unfamiliarity with the new rotation compensated for by the fact that it's so ... absurdly ... simple (see above). Peak arcane damage is obtained by ... spamming one button. Vanilla frost mages and destro locks may remember that feeling. The only reason to stop spamming that one button is because you're running low on mana, when you have to move to a lower-cost (but still simple) rotation until you have your mana regen back. Then it's back to AB spam.

Next step is my warlock. Destro was reported to be doing pretty good DPS, so I thought I'd give that a try. Not so good - my DPS was half what it was before, even after checking gems/glyphs/enchants. Right now I do lousy DPS even with EasyDestro to help me.

My mage and warlock have fairly similar gear, and both specs are reported to be doing good DPS, so what's up? Well, let's take a look at the destro warlock priority flowchart kindly provided by The Cursed Gnome:

I think most people would agree this this is a whole bunch more complicated than the current arcane mage rotation - the reason why the same player in equivalent gear is doing way more DPS with arcane than destro is fairly basic - arcane is simply easier at the moment. Of course a lot of these differences will fade as I become more familiar with the destro rotation, but the core problem will remain: destro takes more concentration than arcane, which means it's harder to keep up max DPS whilst avoiding all the other hazards a raid might throw at you. Not impossible, mind, just harder: I suspect a high-end progression raider would have no difficulty with either.

All of which raises the question: "what skill level should you balance around?". Rather than turn this into a mage vs warlock debate (the two specs I discussed above were just the first ones I happened to test), let's consider two imaginary specs, red and blue, as shown on the diagram below.

The curve along the bottom shows a normal distribution (sometimes known as a bell curve), to represent the variation in player skill. In this case, by skill I mean the ability to execute a complex rotation / priority system in a raid environment, with all the attendant distractions. The red and blue lines represent the DPS that is achieved by our two specs in a raid environment, assuming that they're balanced when played perfectly.

It's that "perfect play" assumption that causes the problem. Stick to it and the blue and red specs will be equally represented amongst the best players, but for the vast bulk in the middle, blue is clearly a better choice. Unfortunately, if you balance around the abilities of the typical player (or even the typical raider),  so that the lines cross there, red will be significantly better for elite players and the blue spec will vanish from high end content.

The ideal way round this would be to make DPS scale equally well with skill (and gear), but that's a tricky task. In 4.0.1 at least, Blizzard aren't there yet. The simplicity of arcane makes it clearly a better choice for anyone below the elite, for whom the complexity of destro means that it delivers worse results in practice. This is purely a personal preference, but it seems to me that the "sweet spot" for complexity is roughly where fire and affliction are now. Arcane seems too easy and destro too complex.


  1. I do agree that the current situation/balance probably makes Warlocks a bit too inaccessible for a huge portion of players, with (a mostly unchanged) Affliction being the easiest spec of the three. During my time as a Warlock, 4.0.1 Destruction has been the most challenging spec to learn, and not least execute in a "real raid" environment. Throw Engineering and occasionally having to provide the Shadow Bolt debuff into the account, and you have the definition of chaos. Personally I like that, and all our Warlocks (currently three) have gone Destro for this patch. When you're used to it, it really does great DPS, but it's not for all players.

    The question is if all classes/specs should be for all players - Warlocks have always been known for being a complex class, and even though Destruction has been pretty simple up until now, most players that want simpler rotations usually roll something else. I don't have a very elitist attitude to this game - I don't complain about casualization, as long as there are hard modes for those that want a bigger challenge. I love the way they made it easier to gear up new chars, as it not only benefits new players, but also existing players leveling alts. I want the game to be accessible to as many people as possible, as long as there are challenges for those so inclined. That's why I'm also happy about how they changed Destruction - there are plenty of "more accessible" specs out there, spread over several classes, and I'm happy for Warlocks to be a challenge.

    I'm not sure if skill is the only factor here, though - I know very skilled players who would get a headache from playing even Affliction, simply due to different preferences in playstyles. A lot of very skilled timer-based DPS players would do horrible as melee classes with a "simpler" rotation. Plenty of very skilled healers would suck as DPS - and so on. There are few "universal" players doing equally good with all classes/roles/specs. So even though skill does of course play a role, preference or "orientation" may play an equally important role.

    Anyhow, this is getting too long - thanks for a great post, balancing is a permanent challenge in these kinds of games, and even though I'm personally happy with the changes, I do see the problems that arise when making the one "easy to play" spec into the most complicated of the three.

  2. I think you have a good point there, Biep. I guess sometimes we all get so caught up in min/maxing that we forget that a difference in play-style may simply be there to make things more fun.