My post yesterday sparked a lot of great discussion about Blizzard and balancing that I think are worth looking at in detail and via comparison to other games – in this case, FFXIV.
World of Warcraft has, undoubtedly, nearly always had balancing problems with the viability of talents, abilities, and whole classes. One of the recurring themes of every expansion for over a decade now has been a discussion over which classes and specs are meta, which talent choices are absolutely necessary for top performance, and things like best in slot lists and group composition guides.
Regardless of how far back you go in WoW, some of these things exist, and while a large part of it is down to a modern access to information on what things are popular in the meta, a lot of MMO’s have had BiS lists, group comp guidelines, and other such information before it was commonly referred to as “meta.”
Something that has interested me over the last year, where I’ve really been more of a Final Fantasy XIV player than a WoW one, is that FFXIV dodges a lot of this and is perceived as a fairly well balanced game. Here is, for example, a 99th percentile log comparison between the DPS classes of FFXIV on the current endgame raid encounter – Eden’s Verse Refulgence (Savage).
Looking at this, there are still clear winners and losers in a way – a range of around 2,000 DPS separates the top and bottom, which is a gap of over 10%. However, the bottom job in the list (Bard) is a DPS spec with a large number of raid buffs. Dancer and Ninja are in the same boat, where they tend to have lower DPS totals because they offer buffs to their raid groups. This seems like a big gap overall, but let’s look at the same for Ny’alotha on Mythic in WoW.
On the same metrics, the gap between top and bottom is around 33%. Many of the specs on the bottom of the ranking don’t have a similar group utility to the Bard/Dancer/Ninja in FFXIV, meaning that they simply do less damage. If you look within classes with multiple DPS specs, you can see some clear issues too. If you’re a hunter, but you don’t like the pet, you’re going to take a 14,000 DPS cut to play Marksmanship and drop the pet. The top two specs overall have sharp increases over the specs beneath them even at this level of play.
Now, there is a tradeoff for this. WoW is not a particularly well-balanced game, and similar charts I could pull for any point in time in the game’s history would show something similar. However, WoW offers choices within these. While the spec choice is the discussion in the chart, each spec has different combinations of talents, azerite traits, and essences. WoW, within each of these bars, represents the aggregate results of a number of choices made by players – choices available to them through normal gameplay or earned via chasing of goals like Essences.
FFXIV doesn’t really have that. If I play White Mage, as I tend to most of the time for roulette content, and in a raid scenario run into another White Mage, the likelihood is that both of us are going to be performing very similarly. We have some choices via gear expression (do you use 480 crafted armor or normal Eden’s Verse gear? Do you use Edenchoir gear or Augmented Crystarium gear at the Savage level? How have you melded within that gear? What DPS opener do you use? How do you manage your oGCD spells? How do you manage refreshing your Dia DoT on the boss? There aren’t that many questions, and while there is a tactical depth to be had in optimizing rotations (especially for classes that can weave dependent on connection latency), materia melding (being a healer that melds Direct Hit, a pure DPS increase with no healing benefit, which is a correct route in some cases!), and gearing (White Mage this tier even has a Piety set for the first time in a while because MP management can be a concern with certain gear combinations) – FFXIV presents a smaller subset of questions that can be metagamed.
In truth, one of the things I think FFXIV does particularly well is this balance. It doesn’t feel more constrained or less interesting to me than WoW’s does, but it arrives at a much better spot in terms of overall balance.
Blizzard’s way of thinking as captured the last several WoW expansions is fundamentally different, and I think wrong in some ways. Blizzard’s response to metagaming becoming more popular in WoW is to make a series of choice gridlocks, where the “logic” of the move is that the game offers so many different permutations you can choose that even imbalanced choices are, in theory, ironed out by the fact that you can make other choices that balance against that issue. The problem is that, in practice, they also tend to constrain the mechanisms delivering these choices to you such that you don’t really have gridlock in any meaningful sense and there are clear winners and losers. Azerite armor, for example, had a pretty big list of traits, but the problem was that certain traits were only available on gear from specific sources, and the original layout of Azerite gave precious little space to allow players to choose a sub-optimal trait they liked when it meant giving up something that substantially boosted their performance. At this point, the game has “remedied” that by making Ny’alotha raid gear drop a static set of traits across the board, so that you pretty much always have access to a top 2 trait on a piece of armor and have a few other slots where you can make some limited choices like defensive slots.
In Shadowlands, the covenant is this in theory again. Soulbinds and covenant abilities are balanced differently against one-another, but in some cases, it seems like there are clear winners and losers and so Blizzard just adds another meta layer onto the game (provided things make it to live such as they are today). Soulbinds, to my experience in beta, have this a little less because the non-conduit trait options are all pretty low tier and tend to buff the covenant signature ability rather than the class one. Pelagos of the Kyrian has given my level 60 testing DH three different boosts to the Phials of Serenity and Steward, and a single Mastery buff tied to my class ability usage. These abilities are fine, but Blizzard’s idea here is that these balance against one another such that it doesn’t really matter, but in practice, there will still be a theorycrafted best/worst and that will shape the perception of the system.
Talents are perpetually a case of this as well. Blizzard has, more or less, never really truly balanced talents. They’ve done well enough sometimes that most tiers have situational choices or are flavor so much that it doesn’t matter which one you pick, but when a choice is meaningless, that doesn’t mean the choice itself being there has value.
One of the interesting things about this comparison, to me, is that it highlights something I didn’t really realize or expect to think until I did it – FFXIV offers me almost none of the choices WoW does in terms of building my character in an RPG way, and for the gameplay model both games largely share (endgame-focused, balance-obsessed as a result), FFXIV feels better for it. To improve my DPS in heroic Ny’alotha on my DH, I took the Demon’s Blades talent so that I could improve my DPS (with a passive effect replacing an active button choice…) and it worked. It worked, and I could feel my performance improving, which made me happy, but I also hate that playstyle. It absolutely sucks. I used to think it could be good for new players trying the class because it simplifies things, but in truth, it decreases your APM and makes things more boring. In high end content, though, it improved my DPS a lot, sadly, and so for the fun of clearing content, I had to make a choice to have a higher personal boredom with the rotation for the sake of higher DPS and the fun of being able to clear more content. The fun of clearing content and that feeling did mostly offset the boredom, but then in the time between raids, it felt boring to play with no benefit.
FFXIV doesn’t let you make a boring choice, provided the developers do their jobs and make each job feel fun to play, and to their credit, all of the jobs in the game are, to my taste at least, fun to play. There are some that are clunky (Monk stances come to mind, as does the general gameplay flow of healing as an Astrologian in Shadowbringers) but that clunk can be ironed out relatively well by learning the flow of things. Some WoW specs have fundamentally weird rotations and gameplay that doesn’t offset via choices you can make. Shadow Priest, for example, has a very tightly wound rotation around Voidform, and while it is capable of high DPS when played to a high degree of precision (see the above chart and where they rank in Mythic!) but it also mercilessly punishes those who are learning, and with each expansion it has existed as a mechanic, it has been tweaked and tortured such that the flow of play changes sharply. FFXIV has revamps and reworks too – tanks just got huge reworks in Shadowbringers that brought a variety of changes to all of the existing tank jobs – but these tend to remove jank mechanics in favor of better designs, in my opinion. The tank example removed the need for stance dancing for tanks, replacing their tank stance (prior to 5.x, tank stance both increased Enmity generation and reduced damage taken and dealt) and their DPS stance with a toggle of tank stance on/off with the tank stance solely increasing Enmity generation, and resulting in potency buffs for their DPS abilities to compensate. Tanks now do more damage more of the time and their gameplay is focused on maintaining their DPS rotations while cycling damage reduction cooldowns and keeping a run on track.
So I guess that leads to an open-ended question I have thinking about all of this – if you could get a WoW with a top-to-bottom DPS balance of 10% total gap in exchange for losing the choice systems of development, do you take that deal? The tricky thing to me, is that I don’t really know what my answer is. Sure, I like the balance of FFXIV and that having all my jobs geared to the same level means I can rely on a baseline performance that is predictable so long as I play well, but at the same time, it kind of feels almost less like an RPG for it. WoW feels like an RPG, in that it has these choice systems that allow you to build a character via talents into one of 2,187 different builds for that specialization, and then on top of that to have different permutations of Azerite traits, Essences, and gearing, and in Shadowlands, you’ll have combinations of covenant choice, soulbind choice, and conduits, but these systems also introduce the incredibly large possibility space that Blizzard clearly cannot manage as well as we’d all like. In theory, I’d love to see what WoW would look like if talents were simply baked in as leveling rewards and you eventually got everything and a Havoc DH is constituted of a full set of abilities that matches with every other DH and can be directly balanced against that for other classes and specs. At the same time though, part of me enjoys WoW jank, enjoys playing contrarian and picking sub-optimal builds while maintaining enough gameplay proficiency to participate with my guild in heroic content, and playing with how you tweak and optimize for different modes of content.
Going forward, though, Blizzard clearly needs to start thinking of new approaches to how to manage metagaming. Trying to counter it with choice, while a nice sentiment, has failed so much for them that it should be clear new ideas are necessary.
16 thoughts on “On Balance and Choice – The Difficulty of WoW’s Legacy Systems”
I had a brief chat years ago with Greg Street about character design. He referred to what they called internally as The Mechinar Syndrome.
We call it the Mechanar syndrome. Players didn’t farm Mechanar because it was our crowning achievement in dungeon design.
Shoot. Hit send not return.
Players will always look for the fastest route through a dungeon, the fastest way to level, the optimum talent build, will eventually farm specific content to get that one BiS piece of gear. We look to the theory crafters to tell us, these are the best choices. And over the years it has devolved into “if you don’t take those choices you are bad”
When I was a part of the Shadowpriest community back on the old Shadowpriest web site, I had access to the archived forums. All the way back to the beta for Burning Crusade there was talk about how Blizzard was dumbing down the game making it too easy for casual players to get the best gear. Discussions on what were the optimal talent tree choices. If you were gear checking a player, make sure they have this build first. As much as Blizzard has said over the years “ we don’t want cookie cutter builds” but that’s what we gravitate towards.
We will always look up to see what our best stat is, so of course if one covenant offers say haste over mastery we will choose that without even looking at some of the other perks. Is that part of the meta game? I’m not really sure. I spent years answering questions from people looking for ways to improve their DPS. It would always involve checking talents, then looking over stats, had they hit a haste breakpoint, did they have one bad piece of gear holding them back.
Ever since they introduced Surrender to Madness and revamped Shadowpriests I have gone my own way. I just can’t grasp the design. And this is coming from someone that use to understand how things interacted. I wasn’t top tier anything, but I understood the concepts. It is beyond me, and by taking choices that feel right to me, I am down at the bottom when it comes to DPS, so I stopped playing end game. At the end of Legion I didn’t even want to run LFR. The difference between playing what you think is fun, and what is optimal, is now a vast ocean of difference. And the other downside is when we get tuning passes based off data from those playing at optimal, and the first adjustments end up being the choices we make that are core talents.
Sorry I’m rambling. I don’t necessarily feel that everyone is focused on top tier meta play, I think deep down people will follow guide choices, because they want to be able to play well with friends. They don’t want to be passed over when they are picking teams.
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I agree nobody wants to be that guy who is doing bad damage compared to all of the rest of their friends, or worse, strangers in a pug run. We don’t need to be playing in the top 100 to feel it.
My condolences on ShadowPriest. As a former Demo Lock I am sorry that they took what was such a fun ability for Warlocks (the old Meta), slapped a new name on it (Void Form), and gave Shadow Priests a version that many find simply unfun to play by tying it to Surrender to Madness. You are hardly alone in disliking it. Demon Hunters got the wings and the name, but their Meta isn’t the old Demo meta either, being a pale copy of the original.
Sure Demo locks were salty about losing such a great ability. But what really bothered me is that they never gave that fun to somebody else. They just threw it away. Since they insist on keeping Demo Locks as a stationary Hunter spec with long cast times, they could at least give our real Meta – the one that used to exist – to DHs or SPs, and let somebody else have some fun.
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I think a lot went out the window for everyone when they started removing breakpoints on stats. Example shadow hitting an 18% haste. Once you got there you started focusing on replacing pieces with mastery or Crit. And when you got close to the next back to haste. They were hard fast numbers. They were goals to shoot for. Depending on where you were at, you tweaked rotations to suit your numbers. Now? I feel like I am always chasing a theoretical 1 or 2% more to get to that point I’m not hovering a finger over that cast for a void bolt. It feels off, and the more I improve gear, the more the finish line moves. It feels like internal tuning adjustments from higher levels trickled down. I had hopes, two+ expansions of the same, surely they had learned. But that’s a big nope, and as much as players make suggestions, or offer feedback, it feels like we are shouting to the void.
Some of this relates to your post yesterday, but as the discussion is ongoing I am putting it here.
First a comment on the phrase “for the average player”. Blizzard is manipulating us by framing the debate in these terms. Their argument is that for the “average player” none of the flaws we can all see in balance or design will make that much of a difference; all this hand-wringing affects only the “top 1%” where only a few of us play. They used the same argument for Legiondaries. Blizzard themselves have admitted that was a mistake. Or have they?
Nobody wants to play a gimped spec.The casual pug runner and M+ player trying to get their weekly 15, or 10, or even 4 done isn’t having a good time getting into groups with the wrong items equipped. And when they do get into groups who is really happy doing 15% or even 30% less damage than their friend over there who has the right items? But Blizzard continues to flatter us – I care about 5% damage differences, therefore I must be some hardcore meta-gamer! – while simultaneously forcing me into a corner where I can only argue from a position of elitism. This drives a wedge between players that does not exist in reality.
Onto RPG: Personally I don’t find that FF14 plays less like an RPG than WoW, but that is subjective. If we define RPG as the ability to have more customization options for my gear slots then WoW wins? Except that there will always be a BIS item and I don’t have to raid in the top 100 to know what it is. And as you point out these RPG options have implications in an MMO where I play with others. If I make the wrong choices I am that eccentric who brings down the damage of my team so I can play the fun talent or wear the cool looking armor. Or I have super nice friends who will carry me until I get my head out of the sand and farm up that Balefire Trinket in Waycrest Manor where RPG meets RNG and Afflocks go to die. For me that is all I remember when we talk about RPG in WoW. That and having 10 different Azerite Helms in my bags. Meaningful RPG? Maybe if you give me a valet with a very large closet.
In FF14 I can ask have you cleared normal, savage, or ultimate and I know where you are in the game at this moment in time. That could be different than where you were last patch, when you took a break (many FFXIV players join statics only for one patch or so) or next, when your group decides they want to tackle the harder stuff this time. In WoW we spend our time defining people, putting them into categories and debating theoretical terms like Casual, Elitist, Hard Core, etc, dividing the community in ways that barely reflect how anyone really plays. Meanwhile, the developers laugh and throw more boxes of toys at us as if we were starving urchins in some Dickens novel.
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Thanks for the comment! It’s a fair point on the use of the “average player” verbiage, but I do think that it doesn’t work as cleverly as Blizzard might intend – a lot of so-called “average players” are very keenly aware of balance discrepancies in the game and it drives a lot of discussion at all levels of play. Sure, in theory, I do think there’s a point where it doesn’t matter as much depending on the content you’re doing, but I would only go as far as to say “as much.” It definitely is still felt, and it has an impact in a game with a social structure where some of your ability to even do content depends on the good grace of others.
As for the RPG comment, I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had there. I think WoW offers more customization choices at a character development level – but my core concerns are that very few of them are truly meaningful, player-made choices, you can make a “wrong” choice for the sake of your own enjoyment that hurts your ability to be brought into groups (friends like the ones you mention notwithstanding), and that by offering so many of these choices in the myriad of systems they build around things, it creates a bigger problem than the choice offered is worth.
Something on the FFXIV note that I found interesting is how the game is built to be cyclical without forcing too much engagement. WoW wants you online all the time, and F2P MMOs love login rewards and the like, but FFXIV leans on the strength of its content and is built so that you can enjoy a patch, unsub, and come back later and not really be missing out. Maybe you won’t be a gillionaire, have a house (heh, as if), or have the absolute best gear, but I really think that one of the best strengths of the game is that model. A lot of these complaints about WoW come from the fact that the game uses advanced progression systems past leveling as means to get players logging on more – and it creates a space of burnout and frustration for some, I suspect!
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Here’s hoping this will indeed not work out as they intended! I do see the push back. And I was not trying to call you out personally btw, as I see what you are saying, just remarking on what I see in discussions from some self-styled “high end” *cough* players who are unintentionally ceding too much ground imo.
I love what you call the cyclical nature of FFXIV as well as Yoshi P’s often quoted remark that when we are done with a patch feel free to unsub, play some other games, and come back again when there is something new. For that alone I am continually subbed, whether I am playing at the time or not.
There is a cycle in wow also. The Dread/Expectation cycle around every Alpha/Beta. It’s something I still follow even though I no longer play, and its more a part of the game than the game itself sometimes.
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Blizz has always had a problem that makes this proposal even more difficult. Let’s take BM hunter and Demo Warlock. Watching these two over the years, they flirt dangerously close to being the same class – both are largely pet-dependent, have had similar mechanics – when is Demo Warlock not BM Hunter wearing a dress and using demoney pets instead of furry ones?
The same is true across many classes – you end up with the same abilities but with different names, the same mechanics only maybe in different order, and so forth.
Blizz’ challenge is to provide a wide selection of classes that don’t have the main distinction of looking different from the others.
And balancing them makes it hard to introduce actual diversity among the classes. How do you normalize the DPS (and how do you even measure hybrid classes like Disco Priest / Fistweaving Monk?)?
All things considered, a 20% spread is not surprising, and possibly even inevitable.
This is kind of where I get back on my “things were better with spec trees” rant. I bet you see where I’m going here. Back when we had large, complex spec customization options (including enchants, gems, and glyphs – the latter being in a very small window) one could make up for one’s class’ shortcomings by tweaking the spec. I can remember when there were something like a dozen viable specs for Destro warlock, and how each performed depended on one’s playstyle, mastery, and biases in the spec.
Blizzard hated that.
Fast forward to now and options for improving one’s performance through one of those methods are largely gone. In a way, Blizz have painted themselves into a corner. Without the means to tweak your spec, they can’t really claim that you have options if you’d just look into them. But if they open things back up, it will be hard on them to manage all the variations that will emerge.
Hm. Maybe the level squish is prelude to restoring something like what we had before. That would be great. Not holding my breath though.
Anyway, that’s the challenge, I think, to provide meaningful differences between, say, all of the in-your-face-melee-dps classes so that Outlaw Rogue feels sufficiently different from Fury Warr (to be fair I think they’re there in that case) without making one clearly inferior to the other – to always offer hope that if you work just a little harder, you can do as well as that other class.
I think that until this dichotomy is addressed, we won’t see any more new classes. They just can’t figure out to add, say, another caster that isn’t immediately compared to what we already have.
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I tend to wonder at the idea of it being hard to balance class/spec. They’ve said time and again that it’s difficult to balance with all the possible class spec talent choices, and yet they keep adding additional systems adding even more mix to the soup. Maybe you’re right. Maybe going back to 60, pruning down the numbers is a first step to an overhaul. Right now it is so complex that you need to either run millions of sims to figure out if a piece of gear is good for you, or you take what you can get and wing it.
It is very hard to know FOR SURE when designing / tweaking a class in the shop as to whether it will be within a 10% window in the 99th percentile raiding which, if I’m not mistaken, is where “we” the end users get our “official” numbers from.
(also begs the question as to whether 99th percentile carries over to us filthy casuals down here in filthy casual land, or is it so distorted up there that nobody else sees similar?)
Occasionally, if I’m watching a really boring NASCAR event (same guys in the lead AGAIN) I’ll do the sim thing but otherwise I get me some weights, slap ’em into Pawn, and just go with it. We’re at the point now that the next change will be “everything changes” anyway.
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I agree. It seems kind of crazy that we try to follow the numbers handed down to us that are based on high performance with the absolute best gear choices, and we grumble and complain that the class doesn’t perform as great as it should. I always wondered at comments to me, “if you want the gear, do the content”. I’ve always tried my best to get the gear needed to do the content. Always seemed cart before the horse to me.
There used to be a time that crafted gear was intended to get that foot in the door (and, suspiciously, PvP gear always seemed better spec’d aside from focus on non-raiding stats). Or, you could incrementally gear up by running a lot of Heroic dungeons (badges etc). That all seems to have gone out the window, but it seems like that’s a great way to get people into the introductory raids and then they can ramp it up.
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Yeah, I actually miss the Cata era Welfare Epics. Believe it or not, I’m a over 450 level, and still using a blue trinket, because the stats were better than the epic one I had. Upgrades for me would be in the Mythic +8 ish level or heroic raids. I haven’t completed all of the dungeons on normal, none on heroic, no mythic, and only did two nights with the guild in one of the earlier raids where I spent the night dead after the first few minutes of each fight. I’m happy I’ve been able to keep up, but it feels off in how I’ve done it, and unrewarding. Doing 4 world quests shouldn’t negate LFR even Normal rewards
lol, I have one of those blue trinkets on my Hunter and it’s driving me nuts! 🙂
I totally agree that things are somewhat confusing regarding gearing, though I must say that I approve multiple paths to the same gear level. So if you get to 450 on WQs and enjoy it more than LFR / Raiding, who’s to say it’s bad?
On the welfare epics, that’s just the thing. Right now, the best you can craft in gear is either (a) way too weak to get you even into LFR, or, (b) requires you to gather mats from LFR in order to make gear that still isn’t any better than what you get from LFR.
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The point on class differentiation is a good one – interestingly, I think that when they did the Legion revamps, to your point, they actually brought Demo and BM closer together, which proves that nicely. I’m totally fine with flavor differences where two classes are kind of close but offer an aesthetic choice – in my head, just the core mechanics of a hunter vs a warlock are different enough that even if the abilities carry identical balancing, it would feel okay to me.
I think some spread is fine and agree that the inevitability of one is undisputed. I do think Blizzard lets bigger spreads come in than they should though – 30+% top to bottom creates a clear meta tiering and loser specs where you might face friction for wanting to bring one into a raid. It is a social problem as much as a balancing one, but the two problems create a feedback loop with one another as well.
With regard to the old talent trees, I have mixed feelings on them. I loved them because there was an incentive for each and every level and something you could do differently. I remember Wrath DK design (I was in love with Blood DPS) and the weird ways in which you could play the class in clearly unintended ways (DW unholy, DW tanking, I guess all DW builds outside of the main Frost one!) and thinking that it was really cool that the game offered that. On the other hand, they tended to have a similar problem of ideal routes, which at least felt a lot better when you got 70 choices instead of 7. When I started leveling alts in Wrath, I tended to use cookie cutter builds and didn’t think all that much about why I was choosing the talents I did. But, the flipside of that is that I had fun playing and I still felt like I had my own character, so it seems like the distinction is irrelevant.
On a funny note – there are a lot of signs in mob abilities in Shadowlands beta so far that they were probably getting close to implementing a Necromancer class or at least batting it around, because there are a ton of custom spell animations for world NPCs that definitely fit that flavor. It is, to your point, probably for the best that they focus on getting the current house in order before adding more to it, though.
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I really think that the meta tiering thing is more of an issue on the players’ side than Blizz – players look at 99th percentile logs and then use that as a way to pressure their fellow once-a-week raiders to be like that, or worse, as a way to pressure someone out of a raid in order to make room for someone else. Whether they are using it as a convenient excuse, or really don’t understand that 99th percentile isn’t really relevant at their level, remains to be seen. Can Blizz fix that? Certainly, they could disable all damage meters etc but how well would that go over? And how would it stop awful people from being awful – they’ll just find a new thing to be nasty about. /shrug 99th percentile logs are useful because the represent not only the top tier of what can be done with the game, but also the limit of where people can go – you never have to wonder if you’re looking at an outlier like you do when you parse logs down at my level.
I, myself, have noted that if you have cookie cutter builds you won’t have diversity anyway, but I have also played it cagey there by observing that the truly good players will always find a way to diverge and excel. I personally tend to go with what I feel I need in the moment and then after I hot max I’ll go tweak with the cookie cutters. I like the idea more than I like the implementation, but I still like the implementation better than what we have in retail now.
Doesn’t surprise me about Necromancers, we’re overdue for a caster Hero class and that’s a natural fit for the Shadowlands epilogue.
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