I had a draft version of this post I was working on, no joke, for 4 days. The idea was there, but it was getting bogged down by a lot of details and while I am not adverse to detail-heavy posts, it was too much.
So I’m going to try an experiment for my writing style – just gonna cut right to the main argument and discuss.
A lot of RPGs from my youth and my first major MMO forays both had advancement and progression systems fueled by player choice. WoW had talent trees until Mists of Pandaria, with points per level (or every other level in the final iteration) and you as the player had the ability to choose where to place those points, with certain parameters set on it. FFXIV had two intertwining systems from ARR and Heavensward which were nixed in Stormblood – assigning stats at level-up and choosing cross-class skills to use by leveling an alternate job and having access to a selection of that job’s skills, up to a game-set maximum of these other skills which prevented you from taking everything you could.
These systems fell out of favor and led the way to the customization slate we have today – WoW’s “talents” which are really just an ability or trait you can choose every handful of levels out of 3 choices for that tier with no ability to go back and pick a second choice from a tier, and FFXIV’s only remaining relic of its past, Role Actions, which are defined by the role your job plays in group content and is supposed to resemble the spirit of cross-class skills without actually being that.
I want to start the actual discussion in this post with a statement that I think a fair number of people will disagree with – I don’t think that old-school talents, stat allocation systems, and the like were as good a fit for the type of RPGs WoW and FFXIV are as we tend to romanticize them into being. There’s this almost mythology around these types of systems and the way they used to be – that they were balanced well, contributed to your player growth, and felt like major choices. I think that they were great at making leveling up feel like an event – you got your talent point to spend, your stat points to allocate, and away you went. I do think that there was fun in figuring out the right loadout for a given scenario, and because of the smaller scale of each choice, there was less danger in a “wrong” one. In fact, some players could make exceptional builds that cut against the conventional wisdom – I’ve used the dual-wield Unholy DK from my Wrath-era guild as an example before, but old Alcibiades was the template in my head for that very concept – the build he used was supposed to be bad, but he always did exceptionally well with it.
However, as the focus of both games shifted to competitive content – whether racing another guild to a boss kill in a PvE raid or trying to win a PvP match – these choices mattered a lot more, and Blizzard first with Mists of Pandaria sought a way to make the choices matter both more and less. There would be far fewer choice events, and each would be potent, but the choices on offer at each talent breakpoint were to be so well balanced that it functionally didn’t matter for the majority of players. Yes, I hear you laughing in the back, and don’t worry – we’ll talk about balance more later! The same went for FFXIV and both stat allocation and cross-classing – players deep in the game could really wrap their heads around these systems and roll with them, but stat loadout could feel like a trap choice by the time you hit level cap, and cross-classing in FFXIV in general was a sort of mess for new players to wrap their heads around, both in cross-class skills but also in the original way you’d move from a class to a Job – which is, today, functionally dead, as class is synonymous with job, all jobs added to the game since ARR have no base class, and other than the edge case of Arcanist into both Summoner and Scholar jobs, the original flavor of the cross-class requirement for job unlocks is gone, what little was there in many cases.
In my mind, the idea of the modern WoW build is that it leans into what players were actually doing more. We all have our rose-tinted view of players making tough choices every level of advancement, but in truth, for the vast majority of WoW’s history, we all picked our cookie-cutter specs from wherever the predominant theorycrafting was originating and rolled with it. WoW’s most interesting design choice early on is that it also had this sense of talents as a semi-permanent choice you would make and keep – an idea it enforced by making talent swapping difficult to do and prohibitively expensive. You had to find a class trainer to reset your talents, and each time you did it, you ratcheted up a bigger cost for the service (with some decay built in to eventually lower the cost back down). Assigning 1 point at a time was easy, but 51, 61, seventy-one points? Oof. The game made the process hard and the design language of that decision tells me that Blizzard wanted the choice to matter – but functionally, I trusted a math nerd on the internet to design the build for me based on their understanding of the underlying arithmetic and never looked back, except for maybe after a patch.
Modern WoW is very cookie cutter and it takes literal seconds to move to the meta spec choices for your class, but classic WoW was very similar in that regard but the process took longer, cost gold, and was more annoying. Both systems allow for “wrong” choices – something I’ve advocated for in the past – but one gives you a space to play with the talent loadout of your choice, feel it out, and modify if needed, while the old system could get way too costly if you tweaked a few points in the tree every couple of days after doing some learning. On the other hand, very little about modern WoW’s talents are in line with the old ideal. Passive stat boosts and small bonuses aren’t huge, earth-shattering choices, but they give you a sense of power progression as you level that the current game desperately needs, because without that, it’s just a sprint to level 50 to do current expansion content in Shadowlands and nothing prior to that matters.
Likewise in FFXIV, a few players pointed out to me that the choice in WoW is largely illusion either way, and FFXIV has such immaculately good class design and balance that cookie-cutter choice machines aren’t necessary, and I find it hard to disagree. The same thing goes for the old builds systems the game once allowed – stat allocation doesn’t create a hugely unique character, especially since you were investing into primary stats and couldn’t, for example, go all-in on spell/skill speed to get your job’s GCD down to a comfortable level for weaving and keeping the gameplay peppy. Cross-class skills are cool and all, but at the same time, it was pretty annoying to have to level Gladiator to be able to roll my Conjurer into White Mage, or for most tanks to have to sink levels into Gladiator for Flash or Marauder for Provoke. The flavor of these systems wasn’t that well delivered upon either – you could reason yourself into believing a lore reason for them, but there mostly wasn’t justification for it – it was just a gameplay hoop to jump through for a full toolkit.
To this point, you might suspect that I hate progression systems like the ones named in RPGs, but the truth is…I don’t. I think that all of these systems have flaws of some sorts and that it makes it hard to see what the path forward should look like, but I think they absolutely have a space and need to continue to have a space in RPGs. At a certain point, I think the aggregate community feedback pushed us into a space where the current systems made sense, but then also are ultimately disappointing. I dislike current WoW talents because they don’t feel uniquely special, like my character has no signature for me in how I play it and build it. In FFXIV, you get even less of that because you just pick your gear and materia melds and that’s it.
Both games have made customization more about cosmetic factors, and that’s fine – I like that there is a wider variety of character choices you can make today that perfectly fit your aesthetic preference, but at the same time – I’d love for that customization to bleed into gameplay more. Old talents let me make choices, and even in some cases, some trees had flex in the cookie cutter build so you could play in the space a little bit. FFXIV stat allocation could be done wrong, sure, but it was rarely big enough to make an impact. Cross-classing was awkward and a bit of a chore, but you could do some really cool stuff with it that a lot of players outside of that Savage raiding mindset could enjoy.
There’s something lost in the talent systems of yesterday because of the order in which feedback on them was tackled. Builds were too freeform and too large, so Cataclysm locked you to a spec tree for X number of points and reduced the number of points drastically from where Wrath of the Lich King was. Builds are still too cookie-cutter, so now you get the pick 1 of 3 build design and the first iteration of that had identical talents for the whole class, where the choice boiled down to tiers that were built on an identical theme – a defensive tier might have had a passive health increase, an active damage reduction cooldown, or some form of passive/semi-active healing. In Warlords of Draenor, the big change was a spec-specific final tier of choices bolted onto the class-based framework, and then Legion went to spec-specific choice tiers instead and that’s basically where we’ve lived ever since. If you provide the cookie-cutter feedback first, what system emerges?
Players of today (unless they’re playing WoW Classic) have no real sense of what old talents were like, and I think that in some cases, players have actively turned against builds because of how it feels like an illusion of choice rather than a meaningful choice. However, I think there is a space for builds to continue to be a thing and to be a thing with more depth than either example I’ve named here provides. New World has multiple such systems, with weapon skills and stat allocations mirroring things we’ve talked about here today, and I am curious to see how a new generation of MMOs built by people who came up through the commotion of talents in WoW will end up playing and feeling.
Lastly, I think I need to dedicate a little bit of space to the argument about “playing wrong.” To an extent, I get it – no one wants to be the anchor in group content because they enjoy playing a way the game doesn’t balance well for. On the other hand, I think a part of learning the space is having the room to make mistakes in. Talents in WoW worked because there was a learning process and a degree of flex in some cookie-cutter builds, so even as you went in that direction, there was room for pure play. Likewise, stat allocation in FFXIV wasn’t a huge, high-impact activity, so you had some play to do it “wrong” and see how it felt. I think there’s room to better balance choices, big or small, because Blizzard has never really stuck the landing, whether it was simple trees, big and complex ones, or the pick 1 of 3 style, and I would love to see them or someone else in another game get that balance spot-on.
The future of the genre is also more visual than before, and a lot of us put a lot of love and care into making our characters in a way that speaks to us or represents an ideal, and I think that advances to character customization should consistently be a focus. FFXIV adds new hairstyles and all sorts of visual options all the time, on top of a very robust character creation toolkit with sliders of all sorts and the ability to do so much. WoW lags sharply behind – the Shadowlands and coming 9.1.5 options are great starts, but I’d love to see WoW character customization with sliders to push characters in all sorts of directions and to take the well-built base options from the developers and expand upon them thousand-fold with the ability for each player to tweak and customize that much further. I’d also enjoy seeing cosmetic customization extend beyond character look – give me more glyphs to customize spell appearances, give me options to change the spell effects similar to Warlock green fire, and give me choices for character animations, even if between preset options built by the team.
Ultimately, I think that the competitive streak in MMO content has paved the way for reduced customization and reduced expression from players, visually but also in gameplay. A big part of what makes an RPG character “yours” is how it plays and how it conforms to your fantasy of what a Paladin, a Dark Knight, a White Mage, or a Demon Hunter can be – and there is a lot of room in the genre as a whole to get back to giving us this expression and means of ownership over our characters.