Passive Damage and Its Negative Gameplay Impact

Most of us play games to interact with the mechanics of said game in a meaningful, substantial way.

When a game removes layers of interaction, it can create a less-enjoyable experience.

World of Warcraft is, at its core, a gameplay loop built around using your character’s skills and abilities to interact with the world, most commonly (though certainly not always) through combat. When WoW combat is good, it is fluid, faster than the average MMO, and full of branching choice paths on the ways in which to maximize your damage output or minimize incoming damage. When it is at its worst, the game involves a smaller number of button presses, less stuff to do, and a larger amount of things happening passively.

Something I hadn’t really included in my feedback in the BfA Review series, which was pointed out in a TwitLonger review of BfA from Asmongold, is core to some of the dissatisfaction many of us feel with BfA combat.

Think really hard about your average combat interaction in BfA, or even in Legion. How much of your damage comes from you, and how much of it comes from passive effects?

Do you even press a button at all for the majority of your damage-dealt events?

This is something of a core problem to the game right now, and it has been arguably since pruning began in WoD, although it hit a stride in Legion and has accelerated in BfA. For me as a Havoc Demon Hunter, consider this – my auto-attack damage does not require active intervention short of right-clicking a target. If you take the Demon Blades talent, you don’t even have to hit your builder – you just passively proc more damage at random moments. Blade Dance is active and good, and while you can take the Trail of Ruin talent to leave a DoT effect, that is still active since you choose to use Blade Dance, so it works for me. Eye Beam is a huge burst of damage, but it requires a channel and the setup and positioning that entails, so it works. Chaos Nova is active. Other talent choice abilities are active.

However, let’s look at my passive damage. I have, in no particular order:

Auto-attacks
Torment in a Jar trinket
Infinite Stars corruption effect
Breath of Death Azerite Essence
Crucible of Flame essence
Azerite shards from the minor effect of my major essence
Gutripper Azerite trait

So 7 effects, not awful, right? Sure, in theory, this is fine – I listed a decent number of active abilities above. However, my core rotation is about 3 abilities – Demon’s Bite, Chaos Strike, and Blade Dance. When available, you use Eye Beam, and then situationally, you might use Chaos Nova or Throw Glaive – usually more of the former and less of the latter. So at best, my rotation has as many regular-use, non-cooldown buttons as I have passive damage effects. If we take auto-attacks out of the passive list, it still stacks up to 5 active button presses and 6 passive damage sources. This is…not particularly great!

One of the key things I think about with player agency is that gameplay needs to be full of moments of decision. We often discuss this topic at a larger, global level – loot systems and reward mechanics, story and character development, choice of gameplay modes that are satisfying to you personally, and more – but often, I think the biggest net-negative for the game right now is how much your moment-to-moment combat gameplay is done for you via passive effects, random procs, and baseline damage that gets baked in with no work on your part other than identifying a target. In some modes, it is worse – if you get the firebreathing potions in Horrific Visions, that does more passive damage for you as well!

It’s not a phenomenon that is exclusive to melee, either – think about a ranged DPS rotation. My casters are similarly built with minimal button-presses and a lot of passive damage. The Frost mage mastery is literally passive damage with a deterministic trigger! Demonology warlocks summon hordes of pets to do damage for them, and while I enjoy the spec, I felt like the Legion iteration at least used more commands to direct pet damage. The single biggest place where lack of agency is felt in the current game design of WoW is in combat – not just because of pruning, but because so much of your damage is smoothed through passive effects.

For an example, I’ll look at my guild’s most recent Carapace of N’Zoth kill, with me as Havoc. Adding up the passive effects as a percentage of my total damage dealt results in a total passive damage percentage of 31.58%. Almost a third of my total damage dealt comes from completely passive, random chance events! Now, that isn’t to say my choices in gameplay don’t matter – that still leaves almost 70% of the damage from other sources, but I didn’t add auto-attacks to that 31.58%. If I add that in, the end result of passive damage is 40.62%. So about 60% of my damage comes from choices I make, or to simplify, for every 3 points of damage I choose to deal, the game automatically deals 2 points. That is, to be frank, far too much passive damage. It removes my performance from a significant chunk of what I do – the game is going to deal almost half of my total damage no matter what I do, and while I can improve my own performance a bit to improve the margin slightly, the fact remains that a substantial amount of my damage is being done by the game playing itself, in effect.

How would I fix this? Well, I have a few things in mind!

-More Meaningful Choices: Rotations these days in WoW are very heavily built on a foundation of builders and spenders – use this ability to grow your resource bar, until you get to a sot or hard cap, and then dump the resources to do more damage. Something I would like to see is a sense of rotational utility – an ability that does minimal damage and builds no resource, but instead empowers another ability. The original iteration of Hunter’s Mark is actually a good example of this – it does no damage on its own, but it creates more damage overall by amplifying the Hunter’s attacks against the target. You can place it easily at the start of a boss fight with one target and forget it, but then on add fights, multi-target fights, or trash, using it takes a very different form.

-More Damage from Spenders: If Blizzard isn’t going to completely retool build/spend gameplay, then spenders should be more substantial. Right now as a DH, the only thing separating Chaos Strike from Demon’s Bite is that it does more damage, but the margin between the two isn’t so large. If Chaos Strike did like 250% the damage of Demon’s Bite, that could be fun – it would be a big number, an even more satisfying critical strike, and it would feel like an important capstone in your rotation, watching it chunk an enemy down. A big part of my problem with modern WoW is that damaage is often very smooth and flat when a rotation is on auto-pilot, where I think that it should be large peaks and deeper valleys. A lot of the smoothing comes from passive damage, so if you just remove it altogether, that probably already gets close to what I want here, but I think building it explicitly into gameplay is key.

-A Larger Selection of Buttons to Press, Including Situationally: Outside of major buff cooldowns like DH Metamorphosis, most of your core buttons are hit on a predictable pattern or with a simple rule – short-term cooldowns are hit on CD without fail in many cases, for example. This isn’t inherently bad, but when coupled with a small number of buttons, it pushes the game into a potentially unfun territory quickly. Having buttons that modify rotations is great, as I discussed above. Having buttons you hit at certain points is great – stuff like Execute. Having buttons that proc things could be nice. I don’t hate passive damage if say, for example, you have a melee attack that has a 15% chance to cause a huge bleed DoT on the target, but does less damage in a normal hit than your typical builder or spender. In that situation, there are a lot of cases where I won’t press that button, but it isn’t necessarily a trap choice – say there are transition phases in a fight where an enemy goes ranged but continues to take DoT damage, then I want to smash that button once DBM starts counting down to add some damage in. That is a choice I can make that can improve my performance by forcing the hand of fate. More buttons and especially ones that are designed for circumstantial use is a good thing to me, in my opinion, although it is possible to swing too hard the other direction, so finding balance is a key.

-Less Emphasis on Steady-State Rotations: To be fair, a lot of WoW is built on priority or resource-based rotations rather than a static 1>2>3 route. However, when I think about the priority systems, they have a cadence that is mostly predictable. As a Havoc DH, for example, my core loop is hitting Demon’s Bite until I have enough Fury to spend on Chaos Strike. I can choose to pool Fury and risk losing some if I overcap, but then get to hit Chaos Strike 3-5 times in rapid succession, or I can dump accrued Fury immediately when I hit 40 on Chaos Strike, reducing the risk of an overcap but also meaning that the RNG of Fury generation and the Fury refund from CS critical strikes can add some intrigue to the rotation. However, these events seldom cause significant deviation from the norm – for my playstyle, I hit Demon’s Bite around 6 times, then dump my Fury on an average of 4 Chaos Strike, and repeat. Every 30ish seconds, I get to hit Eye Beam, and to maximize it, I want to be as close to 30 Fury as possible, since I have talents that make it max out my Fury and also activate Metamorphosis. The rotation has some fluidity (Havoc is an enjoyable and fast spec even in the current state of the game, which makes it something of a poor example!) but it largely centers around a predictable sequence of events that only vary in total number of events prior to and during major breakpoints.

There is almost never an instance where, say, I would be rewarded for using Throw Glaive – even in AoE, it is pretty weak. If Chaos Strike non-criticals could add a Chaos damage component to Throw Glaive, that would be a fun deviation – now both crits and non-crits serve as decision points, and if I could make it a thing, I would design it so that after say…10 non-crit Chaos Strikes, it would make Throw Glaive do huge extra damage to its 3 bounced targets, exploding on the last hit in an AoE pulse that deals 50% of its total damage to your main target and the rest to all enemies in 5 yards. That is just a post-lunch thought (probably shouldn’t contemplate why a loaded baked potato makes me think of chaos explosions…) but that hits a lot of my buttons – contextual, decision-based, with just a bit of RPG luck baked in, and culminating in a cool moment with visual flair and a spike in damage output. It means that outside of ranged scenarios, there is a use case for Throw Glaive in your rotation, but only some of the time – you bind it and work it in where it makes sense, and there is a reward for optimal usage.

Overall, while I initially sighed at the source of this revelation, Asmongold is right here. WoW has started to lean far too heavily on passive damage that removes player agency and performance importance, and for the game to get to a new glory days, it needs to find ways to course-correct and make player decision and gameplay matter more through meaningful, rewarding combat interactions (on top of the other things we’ve discussed in the past!)

4 thoughts on “Passive Damage and Its Negative Gameplay Impact

  1. IMO, I feel like its the developers trying to balance around 32 different specs in multiple modes of play and they just don’t have the manpower and mental bandwidth to do it. Pruning rotations and softening the impact of talent choices are ways to make their lives easier by reducing the number of variables they have to account for. From there, they can ‘balance’ all the DPS specs by just upping or lowering passive damage amounts. They don’t have to worry about certain classes having more burst damage than others if they can use passive damage to smooth it out over the course of a typical PVE boss.

    I mean, that’s what auto-attack was always somewhat there for, and some classes like Rogues always had a large amount of their DPS come from white attacks. But after 15 years it would be nice if they moved to a more ‘active’ play model and I think that’s only going to happen if they reduce the number of specs they have to balance for. Consolidating abilities to be used my multiple specs again would be nice from both a design perspective and from a class flavor perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think there’s something to this – Legion is the point where they really pushed spec fantasy to the forefront and each spec really became an island unto itself. From a balancing perspective, though, they’ve still got a lot of struggles given that in my 60% of deterministic damage dealing, I have a lot of power that other specs lack!

      Shadowlands going to a class-focused design is, I think, the right call. If you can balance a core set of active abilities and then use modifiers for spec flavor, you get a feel closer to what the game used to have – a lot of control over your damage output through strong, smart gameplay.

      Like

  2. Damage does feel flat indeed. In general, I want to press the buttons all the time, but if a spell requires up to 2-3 seconds cast, it simply must pay off with a huuuuge damage, like I think hunter’s Aimed Shot is currently undertuned. Same with cooldowns – peak damage felt amazing. I’m always picking Comet Storm for my main ever since it became available, and I liked how insane it was when introduced, taking off up to 60-70% from a common mob pack. Now – not so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely agree on damage values – I really enjoy when a rotation has a huge hit, because it feels exciting when you see a massive crit on-screen. Some specs still sort of get that, but I think that is what the modern design is most missing!

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