Thought of the Day: Is your judgement of a game based on how powerful your favourite class is?

I noticed during a recent beta that my initial judgement on a game is  affected by how good/ strong/ overpowered my first class turns out to be in the early game.

I’m not saying that it’s right. I’m just saying that if my character is struggling with basic quests where others aren’t and I’m fairly sure it isn’t down to my lack of player skill, there’s a chance I’ll think, “OK, my preferred class isn’t good in this game, maybe I’ll pass.”

Similarly, my judgement on Cataclysm is going to be affected by how well my Arms warrior plays out. Sure, I could switch to an alt if I don’t think it is working out. But the first reaction stays with you.

I think this is part of what Tipa is discussing where she says that she prefers to play MMOs with people who are committed to their game of choice. One of the tests of commitment is what you do if your favourite class seems underpowered. Do you go find a different game, or stick with it and either try a different class or build, or make the best of what you have? (In the vast majority of the MMOs I have played, switching to a different class is a better solution than trying to make the best of a bad thing, incidentally. Don’t bet on devs rebalancing things unless you know they have a track record of doing so.)

This was also brought to mind by a comment in a Cataclysm thread on rpg.net where one poster loves the new WoW expansion, citing as the main factor that his character is top on the damage meters by a significant amount. (*coff* overpowered class *coff* ).

What goes up must come down

It is part of the general cycle in MMOs that some classes are seen as more powerful than others (maybe better at their roles, easier to play, fewer disadvantages, more flexible, have access to some overpowered ability, etc). Over the life of the game, as balancing tweaks are made, the class on top will probably change.

Although people mock ‘flavour of the month’ players who switch from one powerful class to another, there’s no special reason not to do this if you have time spare to level and gear another class. Or rather, there’s no real in game reward for sticking with a class through thick and thin.

Hopefully if balancing goes well, there should never be a huge gap between classes. They should theoretically always be close enough that people can just play whichever they prefer without being disadvantaged. But for some people, even a small gap is too much when there’s no advantage to make up for it.

Do you think there are advantages to sticking with your favourite class when it is on a downswing? It will be rarer, for a start. People will know that you play it because you love it. Maybe those are social advantages. Or are you also more likely to get bitter and burned out, especially if your class then gets some love and all the flavour of the month players flock back?

Are paladins popular enough yet?

I’m always fascinated when Zardoz publishes one of his regular Armoury Datamining updates – this is about as accurate a census as anyone outside Blizzard can hope to compile. It’s based on current armoury data, from which he can assemble tables of most popular classes, specs, races, and even most popular items of gear.

It’s a terrifically underused resource, but if you believe in the wisdom of crowds and want to know which are the most popular builds (for example) or which race has the most even gender split (blood elf, possibly because no-one can  tell the difference?), there’s a lot of current information to be had there.

So from Zardoz’ site, here’s the current state of the level 80 WoW population as of 21st Jan. There are ten classes, so a totally even split would give 10% of the population playing each one.

There is no information here about which characters are mains as opposed to alts, but that’s not such a big distinction as it once was.

% of level 80 characters Class
15.4 Paladin
13.8 Death Knight
11.4 Druid
9.9 Priest
9.8 Warrior
8.8 Mage
8.4 Shaman
8.2 Hunter
7.4 Rogue
7.4 Warlock

So, a few things that jump out.

  • Four out of the five most popular classes are (or can be) tanks
  • Three out of the four most popular classes are (or can be) healers
  • Four out of the five least popular classes can only dps.
  • The most popular class is over twice as popular as the least popular class.
  • The least popular class/spec combination is Subtlety specced Rogues which make up a mere 0.5% of the level 80 population.
  • Female Dwarf Rogue is still the way to go if you want to stand out, they are the least popular class/race/gender combination.

Zardoz also tabulates the most popular talent trees and specs for each class. So what role are those hybrids playing? It’s difficult for me to interpret Death Knight data since any talent tree could be a tank, so laying those aside.

Paladins: The majority are retribution, but both holy and protection are also popular secs. Paladins are relatively easy to play and have three strong trees at the moment, all of which are highly played. To put this in perspective, there are more people playing the second most popular paladin tree (Protection) than are playing the most popular druid tree (Resto).

Druid: The majority are resto, although feral isn’t far behind. I can’t tell how many of those feral druids are tanks, except to assume that it won’t be 100% of them. Balance lags behind – perhaps there are just plenty of options for people who want to play healer hybrids and not everyone wants to look like a fat owlbear while doing it.

Priest: Shadow beats out Holy for popularity by 0.4%, Discipline lags behind. So the majority of  priests are healers but a lot of people like the dps tree also. I think Blizzard has done a decent job on priest class design – fun dps, fun heals, and can use similar gear for both. I suspect that this is why they’re the more popular of the non tanking classes.

Warrior: Protection has always been the most popular Warrior spec and that’s still true. Arms and Fury are close in terms of popularity, I think well geared raiders are shifting back to Fury at the moment, but Arms is viable and still the preferred PvP build. Although Warriors are a less popular class than the other tanking classes, there are probably still more warrior tanks than druids or death knights. Clearly Paladins are by far the most popular tanking class at the moment, though.

Shaman: It has always been strange to me to see Shaman lagging behind priests and druids in the tables. They’re all healer/caster hybrids who can use similar gear for both roles. Shamans (like druids) also have the option for a melee dps spec, which is usually popular with players. Maybe people just don’t like totems, or shamans aren’t viewed as interesting to play?

So what has changed?

Here’s an older set of data from July 2009 (just after patch 3.1). Main changes are:

  1. Paladins overtake Death Knights. This is a large leap, so lots of people have levelled Paladin alts since then.
  2. Priests overtook Warriors. Not such a big percentage change, but they’ve clearly been popular alts too.
  3. Shaman overtook Hunters. Again, people looking to the hybrid classes as popular alts.

Solving the Tanking Problem?

One thing is very clear. The tanking problem isn’t that the classes are not being played, it’s that either the barriers to tanking are too high, people are enjoying the other specs more, or people just don’t want to do it.

So I’d expect to see Blizzard making tanking (even) easier, and exploring ways in Cataclysm to let tanks use melee dps gear (we know they are talking about this). People are evidently flocking to their paladins so that design has to be seen as a success.

But I do wonder how far ahead one class will be allowed to get in popularity. My guess is that paladins are a lock-in for the rest of Wrath and that Blizzard will be aiming to make other classes more appealing when they revise them for Cataclysm – we know that’s going to be a substantial amount of work.

Having said that, does it really matter if one class happens to be the most popular? Maybe people just like their knights in shining armour more than their demon-summoning warlocks?