This is the eponymous third post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.
THE PROBLEM OF FUN
- Warlock popularity at max level is down 12% between Wrath and Cataclysm.
- Warlocks are the least popular class to level with, ending at 41% less popular than the average class. The class popularity declines as characters level.
- Warlocks have done well in hardmode raiding, with two or three specs as viable DPS options within each tier. No other class can boast this.
- Warlocks are overrepresented in high end PvP, especially in high-ranked 3v3 Arena.
The picture that emerges is of a class which is balanced at the highest levels of the game, but flawed everywhere else.
The overwhelming feedback I’ve received from Warlock players who abandoned their class is that playing the class isn’t fun. It might be that it’s not fun anymore for veteran players, or that it wasn’t fun to level one for a player new to the class – but fun is the underlying reason behind it all.
Fun, for as basic a concept it might be, is a difficult concept to define and capture. What makes something fun versus unfun? Why do some activities give us enjoyment while others do not? How can we take pleasure in certain tasks and not others, even if they are similar in nature? How is it that some people can enjoy activities (e.g. Archeology, raiding, PvP) that others find boring or frustrating?
Bringing it back down to Warcraft, why are some classes and specs fun to play and others not?
The Problem of Fun is the central problem of game design. It’s the whole point of making a game! It’s not that a game must fulfill all of the player’s stated desires, but rather that the game satisfies their unspoken ones – desire for challenge and reward, for mental stimulation, for stirring our imagination, for telling a good story, for immersing the player in a world which transports them elsewhere. Game designers struggle with this, constantly – how do you make something that a lot of people find fun, enjoy enough to come back to over and over again?
Some people might not like calling it fun. Call it overcoming challenges and obstacles, putting in a hard day’s work and getting amply rewarded for it both materially and personally, call it whatever you need to to make this idea work for you. I call it fun, because that’s what we have when we play. We’re playing a game, we’re either having fun – or we’re not.
If I could summarize the problem of the Warlock class, it is that the class suffers from inelegant complexity without reward. The class has long had a tradition of being one of the more complicated classes in Warcraft, with lots of buttons and demanding rotations that require players to juggle multiple variables to achieve maximum performance. The cycle of damage and healing between a warlock, their target, and their demon is not a simple one – but it was an elegant one.
It just required a lot of buttons.
What appears to have changed in Cataclysm is that the complexity of playing a Warlock increased, while the rewards for doing so decreased. Furthermore, numerous changes were made to the class which made the mechanics clumsy and awkward. This is manifest in the two chief complaints about Warlocks:
- Combat on a Warlock is more complicated than other classes, yet yields lower returns. Be it in battlegrounds, dungeons, or even questing, you do more to get less done with a Warlock than on other classes.
- Outside of combat, playing a Warlock is harder than other classes due to quality of life issues. Leveling lacks flow, talents are poorly planned out, acquisition of new spells while leveling is confusing, and utility is lackluster.
These are two sides of the same coin.
Cataclysm ushered in a number of failures in class design, talents and abilities, rotation, balance, and quality of life issues for Warlocks, all of which contributed to the class’s decline in popularity. Part of this was due to the major redesign the class underwent at the beginning of the expansion; part of it was due to changes made to keep the class balanced at the high-end endgame with the other nine classes as the expansion progressed.
Other classes were less complicated, more elegant, and performed better in many common situations than Warlocks. They were more fun, so players gravitated to them.
In hindsight, we should have seen a lot of this coming.
THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY AND THE SIMPLICITY TAX
The reason we should have seen these failures coming is because Cataclysm was, in most ways, a triumph of the Bring the Player, Not the Class school of class design. Buffs were redesigned so that they were distributed more equally between specs. Gone was the idea of the Hybrid Tax, where classes who could fill multiple roles would not do as well as those who could only be damage dealers. All classes could reasonably expect to have a competitive DPS spec. Select Hybrid DPS performed extremely well at many points throughout the expansion.
The implementation of this philosophy in Cataclysm is up for debate, but its presence is not. At no point did any developer say that Shadow Priests should do worse DPS than Mages, for instance. Blizzard’s design mantra has been Bring the Player since 2009. The goal was to create relative parity between the classes, and by in large Blizzard achieved it. Not perfectly – there are some notable omissions – but the attempts were made to keep classes in line.
What does Bring the Player, Not the Class have to do with the decline of Warlocks? Quite a bit.
The goal of Bring the Player is to equalize performance and utility across classes, in effect to remove the impact of class choice on common endgame activities. Raids shouldn’t be canceled or fail because you don’t have a certain class. DPS, tanks, and healers should all be relatively interchangeable.
So if all DPS classes are equal, what is the reward for mastering a complex class like the Warlock?
In many ways, this is the same question we ask when discussing pure and hybrid DPS classes, isn’t it? If all DPS specs are equal, what’s the advantage of rolling a pure over a hybrid? It’s the same concept at work, only dealing with spec complexity instead of role flexibility.
I think we need a new name for this idea that Warlocks are wrestling with. We already have the Hybrid Tax, the idea that hybrid DPS should do less damage than pure DPS because they have role flexibility. Perhaps we need a Simplicity Tax to capture this question: should complex rotations outperform simple ones?.
Quick quiz! Name the simplest high end raiding ranged DPS rotation?
If you said “Arcane Mages,” go sit in the corner for a minute. They have two buttons to push, sometimes three. :)
No, the simplest build goes to BC-era Warlocks with the 0/21/40 Shadow Destruction build, which was based entirely around sacrificing your Succubus and spamming Shadow Bolt. Remember that one, Warlocks? The rotation was a single button. One. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.
So, is it fair that simple rotations do high damage? Leaving aside the question of fun and game design – I think there’s an argument that you can make a rotation too simple to be fun anymore, and the Shadow Destruction build probably got there – the idea behind the Simplicity Tax says that if you keep 6 debuffs rolling with 2 nukes, 3 CDs and still manage to use a melee cone effect, you should do more damage than someone spamming Shadow Bolt.
Think about how often we see people talking about this in Warcraft. You have players mocking faceroll rotations, outrage over 1-button Death Knight macros, countless jokes about how easy Arcane Mages have it. It doesn’t matter if it’s bubble spam or rejuv spam or moonfare spam, simple rotations have a bad rap.
Rightly or wrongly, we have the idea in life that effectiveness should scale with effort or skill. This is the foundation of the Warlock’s complaint in the Bring the Player model. Should a DPS class which requires more complicated maneuvers than other classes do equivalent damage? If you have to track 6-9 variables and use 12-16 abilities, shouldn’t that be worth more output than someone who tracks 3 things and presses 5 keys?
In the Bring the Player model, the answer is a resounding no. The model rejects the Hybrid Tax, and it rejects the Simplicity Tax, because they are about bringing the class, not the player. Play your class because you enjoy it, not because it’s going to do more damage.
Because it’s not, in the Bring the Player model.
There’s an argument you can make against the Simplicity Tax in real life – work smarter, not harder. While it seems fair to say that effectiveness should scale with effort, real life doesn’t usually bear this out. You see it with employment, where you can work for 60 hours a week at a minimum wage job and just barely get by, or you can work 20 hours a week at a bank and live quite well. You see it working on repairing a car or maintaining your home, where having the right tool can make a backbreaking job trivial. You can go get an automatic screwdriver or good drill to put together that flat-packed Swedish furniture in no time, or you can use the screwdriver on your Swiss Army knife and have it take five times as long.
But the idea persists, and it’s a powerful one.
I know that I supported the Simplicity Tax for the longest time. My own statement on the Warlock feedback forum thread from last November:
How do you feel about your rotation?
Other classes seem to be easier. I enjoy the rotation because it gives me a lot of buttons to push, and think it’s fine, but it’s complicated. I seem to have to do more to be excellent than other classes.
I feel like I’m a stick driver, defending myself against the influx of automatic transmissions. I want to feel like the extra effort I put into driving makes a difference in performance and economy. But whether it does or not depends entirely upon the car and how I drive it, and those automatic transmissions keep getting better year after year.
Let’s look at it from the other side of the fence for a bit. Much like the Hybrid Tax, you can argue that the Simplicity Tax isn’t fair to players of other classes. Just because the class is simpler to play than another, why should it be penalized? Not to pick on Arcane Mages for my example, but I think they’re a great example of a simple but elegant spec, where the mana management minigame adds the necessary complexity to keep the rotation just interesting enough to still be fun without being totally boring. Sure, there are only a few tools that you use – but when you use them is paramount. It’s not a Shadow Destruction spec, no matter how I might tease Mages about it. Is it right that an elegantly simple spec be penalized just because other classes have more complex rotations?
This is the bind Warlocks find themselves in under Bring the Player. All three Warlock rotations in Cataclysm are defined by complexity; there is no simple spec, they’re all complicated now. But the prevailing design direction is that the Simplicity Tax, much like the Hybrid Tax, is gone.
Yet, the complaint remains: it is no fun to do more work for equal performance and rewards than someone else.
You have to enjoy the complexity on its own merits for this class to appeal to you. Warlock players have to be able to say, I’m okay with doing more work for my DPS because the work is so much fun on its own.
Or else Warlock is not the class for you.
The ascendancy of Bring the Player Not the Class put players who enjoy playing Warlocks in a terrible position in Cataclysm. Either they embraced the complexity of the class and had fun with it, and were satisfied with average results, or they discovered that it was the combination of effort and effectiveness which they really enjoyed, in which case they were now playing the wrong class for this expansion.
We should have seen the decline of Warlocks coming. Bring the Player forces the Warlock class into a niche for players who like complex mechanics for their own sake, not for the sake of improved performance.
We should have seen it coming.
THE PROBLEM OF COMPLEXITY AND NICHE CLASSES
This has been a discussion on class design theory up to this point; whenever you hear the phrase “assume equal DPS across classes” you can be sure you’re in theoryland.
It was important to start in theoryland, because it puts assertions of actual performance by Warlock players into a framework which lets us understand their rational flight away from the class. Playing a Warlock is hard, and has been made even harder in Cataclysm, but if their damage was exceptional – or brought other fun things to the player’s experience – then we’d see people stick to the class. We aren’t seeing that.
I do more work for less damage. I can’t keep up with other classes. All three specs have low damage output compared to other classes everywhere except for the top tier of raiding, and even at that level DPS isn’t stellar. It’s not bad, it’s just not overwhelmingly great.
I think a lot of this is because the rotations are unforgiving – if the Warlock player makes a single mistake, they’ll lose a substantial portion of their DPS. Players in the top raid tier are excellent players – they don’t make those small mistakes the majority of the playerbase makes. They time their refreshes to procs, they can juggle 13 debuffs across 3 mobs. That’s pretty damn impressive! But it means that if the class is balanced around those players, the small mistakes the majority of players make will add up. And if the class is competing against classes who can AoE or multidot with 2 buttons and no debuff tracking … well, then we have a real problem.
I think that Warlocks’ three viable raiding specs work against them here, too. Individual specs might be better or worse on a given fight, so really skilled Warlocks learn multiple specs and swap between them as needed for an advantage. That’s tough to do; not only are you now trying to excel at one challenging rotation, you have to pick up a second (or even a third) complex spec and master it, too. Then you have to gear differently for it, too, because that’s the way DPS specs work.
And it’s not like Warlocks have a simple spec anymore, either. In Wrath, Affliction was the king of complexity, with Demo a close second and Destro coming in as “the simple spec.” That’s no longer true in Cataclysm – all three specs are now about equally complicated, about on par with Affliction’s Golden Age of 3.0.8/3.1 (a time, coincidentally, where Affliction rewarded great skill with great output.) This is a big weakness when considering the appeal of a class – classes which have varied specs can appeal to a wider range of players than ones which do not. Warlocks, quite frankly, don’t have a simple spec anymore.
Consider what each spec has to deal with at level 85:
There isn’t much difference in complexity between the specs anymore. If you play a Warlock, you are going to have a complicated rotation at level 85, period. You get to choose your flavor of complexity (debuffs vs cooldowns vs nukes) but not if you want it complex or not.
Compare this to other casters (and forgive me if I get this wrong:)
There’s a real difference in complexity within the specs here – something that Warlocks lack. Arcane versus Fire is a very real playstyle difference, and I think that flexibility is a good thing for Mages.
I think we’re seeing Warlocks becoming the class for those who love complex caster rotations. This might not be popular, but it fills a necessary niche within WoW.
Niche classes aren’t something we talk about much in Warcraft. It doesn’t really fit in with the idea that you can roll whatever you like and enjoy the game about as well as with any other similar class. But the niche classes are there – Hunters, for example, are promoted on the character creation screen as “excellent for solo play,” and they are. Hunters are excellent for leveling and playing without a group. Rogues are great in PvP at pretty much all levels, even as their utility in PvE continues to shrink.
Niche isn’t bad. It’s hard to accept, because class is the one thing our WoW characters are locked into, and if we come to love a character but not that niche there can be dissonance and friction. Not every class is going to be niche, and some will genuinely be flexible enough to handle pretty much any role. (Druids, looking at you.) There’s a strange dichotomy here in that Bring the Player forces classes who lack flexibility into niche roles at the same time it promotes the idea that classes shouldn’t have niches.
Isn’t that odd, when you step back and look at it? Why do you choose classes under Bring the Player? It’s not for the buffs, it’s not for the performance, it’s for the intangibles, the side benefits, the utility, the flavor. It’s for the mobility and simplicity of a Mage or complexity of a Warlock; the cool pets a Hunter gets to collect or the sneakiness of a Rogue. Flavor matters, but so does niche.
Warlocks are filling an interesting niche right now. They’re a support class, exceptionally good at small scale PvP, wonderful if you have a healer behind you and a burst DPS working alongside you. They’re a great support class for Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, but weak on their own. They need other players to thrive, which is odd considering their flavor as evil, somewhat solitary crazy spellcasters. In a way, Warlocks are the anti-Hunters: hard to level, require other players to be really effective, lack burst but bring steady pressure. Both classes received major resource system revamps in Cataclysm – yet one class is thriving and the other is not.
The only time niche classes are bad is when you discover that you’ve rolled a niche class, and want to do something that they’re not good at.
Or, worse, when your class’s niche switches on you without warning.
THE PROBLEM OF THE MAIN
What happens when you have been playing a character for some time and you realize that they’re just not the right character for you?
Perhaps it’s part of the leveling process – you look up one day and go, I really don’t like playing a Rogue, why am I struggling to get to level 60? Hopefully that happens early enough that you can abandon the character and start over again. Different people will have different tolerances for this – I remember my first week of WoW, I’d rolled on a different server from some friends and they told me to reroll. I protested, but I’m level 12! They laughed at me and told me I could make that up easily.
They were right, but at the time it was a big deal.
Perhaps it’s an endgame character. Maybe it’s your first, so it’s hard to let go of the only way to experience endgame content. Or maybe it’s one of many, but it’s the one you spend all your time on. What happens when you realize one day that you’re not having fun with that class anymore?
I think this is a real problem for Blizzard. Players who get frustrated with their classes might reroll, but they also might quit the game entirely. Classes are the lens through which players experience the game, and a bad fit between class/player can put players off the game permanently. Correctly advertising a class before a player makes an investment becomes paramount to avoid those times of customer uncertainty.
Niche classes like Warlocks and Rogues present a business challenge to Blizzard. They help broaden the appeal of the game by presenting classes which are good at specific things or for specific playstyles. Even under Bring the Player these kinds of classes fill a distinct role. It’s okay for a class to be unpopular if it fills a niche.
But when a class is unpopular and shedding subscribers because of that unpopularity, that’s when it gets to be a problem for Blizzard. Can a class be allowed to continue like that during a period when subscriber churn is a very real problem?
Identification with a single character can be a boon – players are less likely to leave a game if they feel they have a personal investment in their avatar, and the more time they spend on one character, the more investment they have. But that identification can also be a problem when it ties players too much to a limited view of the entire game. It can also cause people to stay with a class they no longer enjoy, breeding resentment and anger which finally results in them quitting the game entirely.
Several of the changes announced for Mists seem aimed at making the transition between characters easier. Account-wide mounts and pets, for example, help assuage our collector instinct and free us to try a different class without worrying that today will be the day the Baron’s mount drops. Shared achievements serve the same purpose, freeing up players to move between characters.
I think we will see more changes like these coming from Blizzard as they try to address this problem. We will probably see more Scroll of Resurrection-style offers to lessen the impact of a single decision made at character creation 90 levels before.
THE PROBLEM OF WARLOCK POPULARITY AND PLAYING WHAT YOU LOVE
Is unpopular bad?
I don’t know if many people picked up on this, but in the first two posts of this series I tried to avoid making any value judgements about the unpopularity of Warlocks. Their unpopularity was a fact, nothing more, nothing less.
But the responses to that fact show that it is a problem. There are a lot of unhappy Warlocks and ex-Warlocks out there. There are a lot of people who left the game because their class changed underneath them – and not just Warlocks.
It’s not that I think classes should be equally popular; that’s a bad goal to work towards. You don’t want to try to make popular classes less popular. Every time you put a player in a position where they consider changing their character, you have also put them in a position where they consider leaving the game. That’s not good.
Every class should be fun for somebody. I think that’s the guiding principle here – classes should be different enough so that they have the broadest possible appeal, but still be fun.
Warlocks got changed over the course of Cataclysm to become inelegantly complex, and the rewards for their complexity vanished. This is a topic which I’ll touch on in a lot more depth in a future post. But for a lot of their players, this caused Warlocks to become less fun, and therefore less popular. Warlock players had to struggle with a basic, fundamental question – do I still enjoy the complexity of the class enough to stick with it when it’s only average?
This is the challenge presented by the Bring the Player school of design – find a class you love playing, that you have fun playing, because a lot of external validation for that choice will be removed. There won’t be a Hybrid Tax or a Simplicity Tax to drive you to one class or another – so you have to figure out what you love.
If the complexity of the Warlock rotation floats your boat, stick with it. If not, it’s not the class for you anymore.
That’s a hard thing for someone like me to accept.
It’s hard for me, personally, to stand up and say: I don’t love this class anymore. I loved it once, but not what it has become, and that’s okay. It’s hard for me to watch it become unpopular, to see hundreds, thousands of other players reach the same conclusion as me.
It’s been really hard for me to set aside my main, to say that you’re not the character I loved playing before. I still like you as a character, but I haven’t liked playing a Warlock this expansion except in one place – Arena. It took me a long time to accept that my class had become a niche class, that the class design philosophy had left me behind.
I’ve talked solely about the philosophical shifts which caused problems for Warlocks in Cataclysm in this post. The deck was stacked against the class from the start, and even if all the changes had been executed flawlessly we’d still be looking at an unpopular class.
However, there were flaws – lots of them. Cataclysm changed the class from something which allowed us to enforce our will upon the game to something which left us, a class founded on control and domination, feeling powerless, at the mercy of others.
For our dots were easily expelled, and we had no mana drain.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number, where I’ll go into more detail about the issues Warlocks experienced in Cataclysm, and how those items need to be fixed in Mists to reverse the class’s fortunes.