I know I’ve said this a few times before, but it’s still strange to me, as a traditional RPG player, to be faced with the limitations of MMORPGs. In many ways these are two radically different mindsets that share the same type of setting and gameplay elements; the entire concept of and RPG character is flipped on its head for MMOs, especially WoW.
There are traits I’d consider immutable for an RPG character: race, gender, appearance, identity. (It’s not that they absolutely can’t be changed, but that they are beyond the normal magic/technology of a fantasy setting. You need strong magic to make this happen.) There are other traits which can be changed over time – professions, proficiencies, even classes (depending on your RPG engine of choice, of course.) Who your character is takes precedence over what they do, and – just like in the real world – they can change what they do, learn new things, take their own path.
World of Warcraft turns my expectation upside down. The only thing about a character that can’t be changed is their class; everything else is up for discussion. Who they are matters not at all; what they do is the important thing. My druid has gone from a female night elf to a male tauren and back again, all without ill effects in Warcraft – but there’s no plausible way for this to have happened. That’s okay! Not everything needs to make sense when talking about class mechanics. But it’s weird. It’s weird to think that that kind of radical character transformation is possible, but a warrior can’t become a paladin (or vice-versa). A Highborne mage can’t find the ways of Elune and become a druid; a disaffected mage can’t become a warlock.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this again while playing Cynwise, my warlock main whom I discarded about a year ago. Seemingly like a lot of folks, the effect of Decline and Fall on me was to pick up my warlock again and start playing her. At first it was to check things for accuracy, then it was to see LFR and Deathwing. After that I started PvPing again, first to get the Cataclysmic Gladiator’s Felweave outfit, then because I realized that now is a great time to work on Battlemaster. I’m having a mixed time playing her; there are times I enjoy it a lot, and other times I find it frustrating and absolutely no fun at all.
But she’s the closest one I have towards that goal, my only real vehicle in the endgame, and if I am going to be PvPing I may as well be working towards some goal. I enjoy it well enough most days.
It’s not the comeback I was hoping for, but it’s at least a quiet return.
CHANGING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAME
One rather important development that’s happened in the past month has been the announcement of account-wide achievements in Mists of Pandaria. Basically, most achievements will now be applied across all your characters, so if you Explore Mulgore on one toon, you’ll get that achievement on all of them. Meta-achievements will roll up the accumulated achievements of your characters, so if you have done all the quests in Kalimdor, but not all on the same toon, you’ll get it across all the toons. Some achievements are going to roll up your totals across characters – honorable kills for the Bloodthirsty achievement, for example – but details of which and what are sparse.
This is a cool thing. As I come out of my data-induced warlock stupor I like it more and more, even without the details which would help me answer questions like:
- Will accumulated wins contribute to the Veteran achievements of specific battlegrounds? I have 80 WSG wins on Cynwise, but 253 on my extant toons. Will victories be rolled up into a single total like Honorable Kills, or not?
- Will the individual BG Master achievements be treated as meta-achievements? I have almost everything for Master of Arathi Basin on Cynwise except Resilient Victory, which I have on Cynwulf. How will this work?
- Will PvP reputation be additive? I am about halfway through the absolutely brutal and ever-worsening Justicar grind on Cynwise; will the rep I earn on other characters apply? I’ve played in 522 WSGs and 410 ABs on my non-deleted toons, but only 202/234 with Cynwise. Will reputation across toons be added like HKs?
- Will Battlemaster even be a Meta-achievement? There are no guarantees here! Things change in development. Some metas may get left out due to coding constraints; others due to policy discussions. To preserve prestige, Battlemaster might be deemed an achievement which needs to be done on a single toon, perhaps like the Insane.
The old advice is to not count your chickens before they hatch, and that applies as much to software as it does to poultry. It’s interesting to speculate about account-wide achievements, but I’m having a tough time convincing myself that they’re going to be there, and that if they’re included at launch they’re going to work all in my favor.
I mean, the idea is great. The idea is awesome! Quoting Greg Street from his post announcing the change:
Overall, we never want you to play Character A instead of Character B because of achievement concerns. If Character A had the Violet Proto-Drake, then you might not play Character B. If Character A was only one holiday away from the Violet Proto-Drake, then you may not play Character B. If Character A had completed most of the raid achievements from Dragon Soul, you may not want to bring Character B for one fight and miss out on the achievement. Having alts is cool and working on achievements is cool, but we don’t want the two systems to work against each other.
I like this direction a lot. Play who you like, in the situations you like, and it all counts. Which toon you play – which class you play – doesn’t matter anymore. So many achievements I work on that I’m like, this doesn’t need to be done on Cynwise. Some I can motivate myself to do – cooking and fishing dailies, since she’s Chef Salty Cynwise. Others – Loremaster – I just look at and go, I would get so much more benefit from leveling an alt through that zone than taking an 85 there. This change is so, so very welcome from that standpoint.
But the implementation of something this complex causes me concern. There are caveats, and gotchas, and corner cases; I’m just wary. I want to see it in action, on live, before I let myself relax and go, yes, this will be okay.
See, it comes back to the immutability of classes in WoW, and the experience of Warlocks in Cataclysm.
TRAPPED BY A CLASS
What do you do when you decide a class isn’t right for you?
I think the answer to this is heavily dependent upon how long you’ve played Warcraft. When I’d been playing for a few weeks and I didn’t like playing my Paladin, deleting him was no big deal. There was no commitment to the character besides a fondness for the name.
But as characters grow, and level, and become a player’s main character, that kind of abandonment becomes more difficult. That character accumulates stuff; not just levels and gear (though don’t discount them!), they get pets, awards, titles, achievements, mounts. They have experiences and start forming part of our amorphous digital identity. They get reputations in game, and with guilds, and with real people. Their UI gets customized, their abilities get internalized, their macros get fine-tuned. It’s progressively harder to say, eh, fuck it, I’m going to switch and play something else. It can be done! But it gets harder than ditching a level 46 character.
Players I know who have switched mains for raiding or PvP seem to go through certain stages of anguish over this. Every time someone drops a pure DPS to tank or heal, it’s always emotionally complicated. The player is experiencing the content, but not necessarily on the character they’d like the experience on. Or they enjoy the class they’re playing on but it’s not their main. Sometimes it works out well – the new class is a better fit than the old one – but even then there are questions of discarded mains, of emotional attachments which need to be resolved. Rerolling is a tough step to take.
Changing for the need of the group is at least voluntary – players can at least take a stand and say, no, I’m a Hunter, take me as I am or else – while changes to the class are more pernicious. What do you do when your class changes underneath you to the point where you don’t enjoy it anymore? This happens to many classes between expansions, but it can also happen in the middle of them.
I think that when this happens to players it’s a very dangerous thing for player retention. When a player is forced to choose between playing a class they don’t enjoy (to achieve their in-game goals) and one they do (but doesn’t contribute to those goals), a crisis is created. Play the game in a way you don’t like to get what you want – or play in a way you like but not get the rewards. This is a no-win situation for the player.
Furthermore, this crisis removes the incentive to keep playing the game at all, which makes it a problem for Blizzard. If the options are:
- Don’t have fun + get what you want
- Have fun + don’t get what you want
Players will rightly say, why should I play this game? They may be able to force themselves to do it for a while, but eventually fatigue will win out.
I call this getting trapped by your class. You want to play something else, but don’t want to not be playing your main. Or you go and play something else, but regret leaving your main behind. Whenever I hit a BG on my warlock and there are no healers, I’m immediately sad panda because I would rather be playing a healer. Give me a healing spec, even a shitty one, and I will be all over it in PvP.
But now that I’ve started working on Cynwise again, and she’s so damn close to so many of those Battlemaster/Justicar achievements, it seems a real shame not to at least make the attempt.
RELEASE FROM BONDAGE
I still wonder what it would be like to have class changes in World of Warcraft.
I’m sure that technically, a class change is more complicated than a race change, and probably more complicated than a faction change. There are quests that need to be checked, abilities which need to be reassigned, mounts which need to be modified.
I think gear is probably the easiest thing to consider. If I wanted Cynwise to have a radical transformation and become a Paladin, for instance, I can see Blizzard saying that she shouldn’t be able to wear Warlock tier sets anymore. This should be simple, because the class restrictions on the class-specific gear would go into effect as soon as the class transfer took place, leaving players with the daunting task of both gearing up with the new class tier, while trying to juggle bank space in case they ever changed their mind and wanted to go back.
But is there a compelling reason to not allow class changes in WoW?
Say there’s a concern about people changing classes too often to suit the needs of a patch. Put a 30-day CD on it, but also use class change data to track population and identify balance issues with the class. If Shadow Priest DPS is off the charts, or a specific tank performs really well in a given tier – and everyone changes to take advantage, that’s 1) revenue for Blizzard and 2) an indication that that spec needs tuning. Migratory data would actually be a net positive.
I suppose that one advantage of account-wide achievements is that low-level characters can contribute. In a way, this provides a way to “delevel” your characters – you can have different characters twinked at different levels to play in certain brackets, at-level content, or to play with friends. That’s something to consider in favor of achievements.
While I like the idea of account-wide achievements, I can’t help wonder what would have happened if Blizzard went a different way and considered allowing class changes. Changes would end class tyranny but preserve the uniqueness of a character, of feeling that you really have done it all on one toon.
And they would generate a huge amount of class migration data. That kind of shit would be analyst porn.
Account-wide achievements need to be fairly seamless – and include reputation and other earned currencies – to match a class change.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll take ‘em, and gladly. If account-wide achievements been in place during Cataclysm I think subscriber numbers would look better – if nothing else, the trapped by a class crisis could have been avoided.
But don’t forget about the benefits of class changes, either. It’s a conspicuous hole in WoW’s polished portfolio.