Population balance in MMOs: Thinning the Warrior Numbers

This is bound to be a hot topic in warrior circles at the moment, Ghostcrawler (WoW Lead Systems Designer) dipped his toe into the murky waters of social engineering on Tuesday with this post; it’s about halfway down the page, in blue.

– Warriors are very popular main tanks.
— This is probably because they used to be the best tank (by design) and because many MTs have stuck with the class for many levels.
— We think they are slightly under-powered in Ulduar relative to other tanks.
— If we are not careful and buff warriors too much then there are going to be more of them, which only feeds into the perception that warriors are designed to be (or should be designed to be) the best tank.
— We’ve worked very hard to make sure there are 4 viable tanks, just as we’ve worked very hard to make sure there are 5 viable healers. We want to have paladins, druids and DKs tanking Coliseum, and not giving up (or being replaced by the raid leader) because they aren’t warriors.
— We don’t balance around popularity. However we do take it into consideration. WoW is a social game and despite the excellent work by the theorycrafting community, player perception and psychology play a big role and often change very slowly.
— We don’t balance around past history. However we do take it into consideration. WoW is a game and players can form an emotional attachment to their characters. Emotion enters into it. While my team deals with cold hard numbers a lot, that is not the only part of game design.

This is very interesting, and not just because it made me feel down all day (I’ll come back to that.) Some classes in MMOs are always more popular than others, support classes are less popular than dps for example. Melee is usually more popular than ranged.

When one class shows a population spike over and above this, it’s usually because they are either overpowered or perceived to be overpowered. That’s the flavour of the month (fotm) trend, people roll or reroll classes that they think are most effective. Usually, devs will spot this and correct any actual overpowered elements and the rerollers will move on to the next fotm.

In any case, warriors are still popular. It isn’t because they are overpowered, quite the opposite in fact. From comments he’s made previously I’m also sure GC understands the various issues which the class has. Blizzard would prefer it if warriors were less popular – they take popularity into consideration. Even though they understand that people have an emotional attachment to their character (this is part of the reason that people keep playing their warriors despite being a bit behind the other tanks, the other reason is just the general barrier to change) they’d like less people to play them as tanks in order to balance out the numbers.

I’m actually not convinced that raids pick warrior tanks nowadays because they are still perceived to be the best. I  haven’t seen any guilds on my server specifically recruit for protection warriors. I’ve seen them recruit for Death Knights and Druids, but not warriors. If warriors are raid tanking these days, it’s either because the player has a history with the guild or because someone was recruited because they were a good player and they happened to pick a warrior.

And if people are going to switch out their warriors for other tanks, it means that guilds will be ignoring their guild and player history to do so. The only reason to do that is because the player either burns out or switches mains, or because one of the other tanks makes the raids much easier. Why else would you boot your main tank who has been your main tank for months?

I don’t feel that Blizzard has any case for this level of social engineering. All we ask is that they make all the classes as viable in their roles as possible. Yes, people get emotionally attached to their characters after they have played them for a few months, sunk hours into gearing them up, earning reps and achievements, and learning all the ins and outs. That’s how they designed the game. If they wanted players to be jumping class whenever they said ‘jump’ then maybe they needed to make it easier to have account based achievements, trade skills, etc.

Can you imagine the outcry if they’d said that mages were weaker than other dps in Ulduar but that they were cool with this because the class was overpopulated? Or that priests were weaker than other healers in Ulduar but that was OK because lots of people still played them in raids?

We want to have paladins, druids and DKs tanking Coliseum, and not giving up (or being replaced by the raid leader) because they aren’t warriors.

But is it OK to have warriors replaced because they aren’t paladins, druids or DKs?

So, what’s the future looking like?

I have really appreciated in Wrath that GC has been so forthcoming in sharing his views on the different classes and where Blizzard plans to take them. I think that as a player in an MMO, I need to take in-game decisions with the long term in mind so the more information I have with which to do that, the better.

But there is a downside to this. What if the longterm vision that devs have for your class is that they want to discourage people from playing it and keep it weak?

Personally I feel gypped because I wasn’t playing my warrior through any period of the game where they were overpowered. I tanked at the beginning of TBC when druids were the tank of choice. I tanked heroics in TBC when everyone wanted paladins for easy mode. And I’ve tanked in Wrath where warriors have been fine, but a bit behind the rest. I think I’m personally overdue for my overpowered few months. Sure, that’s the history of the class, but it isn’t MY history with the class. And it won’t be the history of anyone else who started their warrior more recently and wasn’t tanking the Black Temple (which is most of us, I’m sure).

I’m not planning to switch mains. I still like playing my warrior and she’s been fine for the content we’re doing. Also, I’m cool with my dps offspec so if I have to spend more time as Fury and less as Protection, I can do that. I do feel down about the game though, I never needed to be the bestest tank ever but there are only 3 spots for tanks in a 25 man raid. How far behind will they let us get? Is it always going to be the hard mode class, where we work harder than the others and still end up behind?

I’m also not looking forwards to having to listen to all the druids and paladins and DKs boast about how cool they are in the tanking channel for the foreseeable future. And I’m like … well, I have Intervene! Beat that! And it gets this really cool bonus in T9, bet you’re all jealous now!

*pat*

But what I really wonder is what Blizzard are going to do next if explicitly stating that warriors are intended to stay weaker than the other tanks doesn’t do the trick. All I’m saying to my fellow prot warriors is … if you get a knock on the door at 6am, hide.

Step away from the leather

The latest batch of 3.1 updates includes a few doozies:

Improved Berserker Stance now increases strength by 3/6/9/12/15% instead of increasing attack power by 2/4/6/8/10%

OK, so finally the boot has dropped and Fury is to scale with Strength rather than Attack Power, in much the same way that Retribution Paladins and Death Knights do.

I’m guessing this was done to bring all the plate dps classes in line and using a similar stat spread. It should make it easier in future to design dps plate that is desirable for all of them. Since Strength converts to Attack Power for warriors at a rate of 1:2, given enough Strength bonuses on gear, it should work out even. In fact, given enough Strength bonuses on gear, the dps plate wearers may even come out ahead.

But right now, it’s a nerf to Fury because:

  • The previous version of the talent scaled a lot better with buffs and enchants (there are lots of enchants and buffs that improve attack power, but very few that improve strength)
  • Many Fury warriors picked up a some leather or mail when the stats were better. Naturally they optimised for the stats which scaled best for them. And some of Fury’s best attacks (like Bloodthirst) scale off attack power.

I think this is the harshest type of nerf in a  gear based game. One that means you need to regear, or that some of the gear you spent that hard-earned DKP on over the last few months is now no longer worth it.

It is so very easy in an MMO to make a gameplay choice which made perfectly good sense at the time, and later is totally invalidated. It’s always annoying. It’s always likely that for some people, it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and they will go off to do something less frustrating.

And who would really blame them?

It’s not that this is really that huge a deal in the great scheme of things, although it does come at the tail end of a few other Fury nerfs.  If Blizzard want Arms warriors to be doing more dps than Fury, then people will just switch. But switching specs has a cost too — a cost in time and hassle to learn to play a different spec, a cost in status from being expert to being a noob, and maybe a cost in fun too if you just liked dual wielding. Not everyone wants to go through that every time one spec gets a nerf, in fact probably most people don’t.

Nerfs are always a sign that the design team made a mistake. There’s no real way to guarantee you’ll never be on the receiving end of one. All you can really do is hoard as much spare gear as possible, and hope that if the stat weighting changes you’ll be able to adjust.

And why is there so little Strength gear?

I’m sure all the plate dps classes have been saying this for ages. But very few of the trinkets, necklaces, cloaks, or rings that are designed for melee have Strength bonuses.

There could be three reasons for this:

  1. It’s a deliberate way to control the scaling of the plate dps classes. If they had access to high Strength gear, they would scale through the roof. The design goal is for rogues to be top melee, and that includes having better gear choices.
  2. It’s the easiest way to make one item vaguely useful to all melee, including rogues. Although in practice it means that the item has perfect rogue stats and is sub par for anyone else.
  3. Laziness. Not wanting to make extra items just for the plate wearers. After all, they already have full suits of plate to roll on.

None of this really explains the lack of Strength enchants or flasks though. Making those available would have been as simple as a couple of extra recipes.

It’s not so fun in a gear based game to realise that so much of the gear isn’t really optimised for you. But until Blizzard see the light, there’s always the Cloak of Bloodied Water to fall back on…