Tag Archives: Cataclysm

Revisiting Gnomebliteration

I was in Uldum tonight questing for some transmog gear when I came to everyone’s favorite mass-murder excused by a machine, Gnomebliteration. As the gear I wanted for my warrior was a reward from said quest of doom, I set aside my in-character brain for a bit and rolled a flaming ball of death over the doomed expedition.

I killed a thousand gnomes for some red plate gloves. And I liked it.

My opinion of the quest hasn’t changed since the last time I wrote about it. I still think its morally repugnant, out of character for a lot of characters, and a hell of a lot of fun.

But at the end of Cataclysm I’m left wondering, why wasn’t this made into a daily quest?

This is a serious question. You’ve got a quest which is popular and provides a fun little mini-game. It’s in a zone which only has two daily quests for reputation, both of which have different mechanics than normal play and the body count of an ’80s action movie, so killing cursed gnomes fits in with the theme of Uldum. The quest got a lot of positive feedback on the forums and on wowhead. Players asked to do a quest again – that’s pretty high praise!

So why didn’t it happen?

Normally, when I write a post like this I have some kind of action that I’d like to argue for, some option or alternative to pursue. Here, I don’t. There are less than two months before Mists; thinking this should get changed now would be naive folly. It’s done. Gnomebliteration is never going to be a daily quest. That’s okay! It’s time to move on.

And I don’t think we, as players, will ever know why it didn’t happen. Development priorities are subject to a lot of different pressures, and I don’t subscribe to any A/B team conspiracy theories. Did this idea even get raised to the developers? Did it get serious attention? We’re there other priorities that kept it pushed down on a feature request list, or was it shot down for technical reasons? Was it deemed more important to keep it a unique part of leveling, one shot and you’re done on that toon?

Or did someone just not like the suggestion?

I have no idea.

What I do know is that, while rolling around a giant flaming ball of death on a quest I should have morally objected to for any good-aligned character, I had more fun than I’d had in the entire zone. Possibly the only real fun I’ve had in Uldum, once I get over how gorgeous the place is. Wheeeee! roll down the steps, pick up more gnomes! It’s not a complicated mini-game, it’s a visceral one.

And to me, this quest seems to symbolize the problems of Cataclysm. Many things were done right, but the things which were truly fun seemed to be shunted aside, fleeting moments. Opportunities to create more fun weren’t capitalized upon. Instead of Gnomebliteration as a daily, we got Tol Barad and the Molten Front. There were a lot of almost-rights, of things which were just a bit off, of things which didn’t quite flow enough to be fun.

Would we have gotten bored of crushing cursed gnomes? Maybe.

But we never got the chance.

I’ve come to accept that I don’t think Cataclysm was a very good expansion. Yes, there were plenty of quality of life improvements which made the game more enjoyable to play – vast UI improvements, transmogging, revamped old content, flight almost everywhere – but many missed opportunities for making the game fun. It was so close to being good, in so many places, but the execution was off. There was a lot of good work, and the game of Warcraft itself is still enjoyable, but I just haven’t found Cataclysm content compelling. I haven’t found it fun.

I don’t really have much else to say about Cataclysm; I had fun, I had frustrations, I’m glad it’s done.

And I’m left wondering why Gnomebliteration never became a daily quest.

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Play Now, Not Then

This too shall pass.

I think about that proverb a lot.

I remember how much pressure I felt two years ago to see everything in WoW before Cataclysm changed it all. It was this palpable weight on my mind, this knowledge that it was all going away.

I had been playing just long enough to have seen enough to know how much else there was to see, but not long enough to have seen it yet. It was my first expansion transition, but also one where the changes to the game outweighed any changes I might have expected to my characters. I knew that there were changes coming to how I would play, but I didn’t really pay them much mind. I had two goals – Ambassador and Kingslayer – and getting those two titles on two very different characters helped me put Wrath to bed and get mentally ready for Cataclysm.

Those titles don’t mean very much anymore. Their value has passed, as the changes in the game made them easier to get. But I remember those accomplishments fondly, and I value them still. I’m glad that I did them then, and didn’t wait for Cataclysm.

Over the past few months I have quietly set aside my twinks and reclaimed my warlock main, Cynwise. There’s a certain natural flow to playing her that I don’t have on any other character, even after almost a year of disuse.  I’m not near Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to master her yet, but I’m working on it. I find myself enjoying PvP on her again – something I hadn’t expected – and that I no longer bemoan her professions or her gear or how Rogues love to gank her.

We just play. It’s uneasy at times; I find I miss healing any BG that lacks a healer, and I tend to tank old raids without a viable tank spec. But by and large, we just play. I’m slowly working on Battlemaster and Justicar, but they’re more an excuse to PvP than goals for Cataclysm.

I realized, though, that there’s a fundamental difference between where I was at the end of Wrath, and where I am now at the end of Cataclysm. Pre-Cataclysm, I wanted to see the game before it went away, and it didn’t matter who I saw it on. Pre-Mists of Pandaria, I want to enjoy playing a Warlock as they are now, flawed yet challenging, before they go away.

This class that I love – it’s going to change in Mists. It’s going to change a lot. I can look ahead and go, I think that I will like the new Warlocks – but I don’t know. I thought I would love Cataclysm, but I didn’t. I don’t think I really even liked it very much, as a whole. There were parts I loved – many of the revamped leveling zones – and there were things I enjoyed well enough – but the sum total wasn’t what I anticipated two years ago.

So I look at the changes to Warlocks with very guarded optimism. I know leveling will be better, but beyond that – I think they’ll work out okay, but I really don’t know. I think I’ll have fun with the specs, but I don’t know which ones will click with me, which ones will work in PvP, which ones will be fun to quest with. I don’t know.

I do know that the specs I enjoy now are going away in a few months. There is a countdown timer running on them. Time is running out for me to play the way I’ve learned over the past few years.

I don’t know if what’s coming will be better or worse. I hope it’s better, but I don’t know. I’m afraid it will be worse, but I don’t know.

I know it will be different, and this too shall pass.

So I’m playing Warlock now, because I enjoy it now.

Changes will come soon enough. They always do.

It’s ironic that I spent so much time in Cataclysm trying to freeze things in place, trying to deny that change should happen, was happening. I built over a dozen twinks – characters locked in various XP brackets – this expansion, each working on different Best In Slot lists, frozen in time. My surprise main character for 4.2 and much of 4.3 was my level 70 Druid Cynli, who is about as geared as I can make her for her primary role.

Cynli was one of many attempts by me to thumb my nose at Heraclitus. All things are change, that ancient greek philosopher maintained, and yet I tried to step into the same river over and over again. I was upset that Cynwise had changed beneath me, that not only had the foundations of the world been torn asunder, but my vehicle for experiencing them had, too.

Was it too much change for me to deal with? Honesty compels me to admit that it might have been.

The Mists Beta is full of all sorts of scenes like the one above. Classes change dramatically without warning. Abilities work, or don’t work, or kinda work, or have interesting bugs that might not really be what was intended – or maybe they might! It’s hard to say.

But as time marches on, and class design starts to solidify and Blizzard developers start making balance passes with the new mechanics, it hits me more and more – I don’t really know what this game will be like in the future. I don’t know what my favored class will really be like.

It’s not going to be like it was in Burning Crusade, or Wrath. There’s no going back.

But there’s also no skipping ahead – no hurrying up the expansion so I can get to leveling my baby Horde Warlock, no trying out the Glyph of Demon Hunting as an off tank in retro raids, no cool new glyphs or simplified rotations or wondering what Haunt is really for.

There’s just the Warlocks of now, the Warlock class I know how to play.

Yes. I know that this, too, shall pass.

So I’ll enjoy it while I can, and take the changes as they come.

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The Loss of the Warlock’s Soul

This is the sixth post in the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

In a role playing game, each class presents an archetype; every specialization sells a fantasy. Your character’s being is tied into what they do, in their abilities and resources. Their class is a shorthand to describe and delineate them. In Warcraft, it’s the single most important thing about your character. You can change their appearance, their gender, their race, even their faction – but their class – what they do – is unalterable.

The archetypes that WoW classes present are broad strokes: a virtuous knight, a fallen hero, a religious ascetic, an archer or rifleman. Some have common themes but subtle distinctions: servants of natural balance versus servants of the elemental forces of the world. Others present the same idea with different polarities: brawny fighters versus dexterous skirmishers, scholarly wizards versus volatile conjurers. Within each of these archetypes there is a lot of room for players’ imaginations to flourish.

The first two posts in this series dealt entirely with identifying the problem: Warlocks declined in popularity in Cataclysm more than any other class. They were the least popular class and declined further. The next three posts examined the theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward, the idea that the Warlock class suffered from increased complication without commensurate reward while lacking leveling elegance to offset churn. These posts are focused on measuring those things which can be measured, of looking at the data and class abilities as impartially as I can and trying to make sense of one question: Why did players leave? Well, here are a bunch of things that changed between Wrath and Cataclysm, they probably all had something to do with it.

But one thing I’ve avoided talking about has been the fantasy of the Warlock, the soul of the class. For one thing, it’s too personal, too steeped in a player’s imagination to objectively measure in the aggregate without a lot of surveys. For another, I think that there’s compelling evidence that the theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward is right, that it’s the obvious reason why players put down their Warlocks.

Yet, I don’t think it’s the only reason.

I keep looking over the Warlock changes made in the various patches and the community’s reactions to them. Warlocks were able to perform at the highest levels of the game both in PvP and PvE, yet players abandoned the class en masse over the expansion. Objectively, the class got slightly easier to play from its apex of complexity around 4.0.6, which in turn implies that it was a combination of fatigue from class complexity as well as the complexity itself which drove players away, not simply the complexity.

Subjectively, though, I think the Warlock class lost its way. Each individual spec failed to deliver the fantasy it promised. The changes made during Cataclysm exacerbated the effect of this failure, so that even if a player wasn’t affected by complexity fatigue, they found themselves wondering if this was still the class they originally chose to play.

There weren’t any substantial changes to the vision or presentation of the Warlock class in Cataclysm. The failure came from muddled mechanics.

THE WARLOCK FANTASY

Setting aside questions of good or evil, the core idea behind Warlocks is that they’re the tough spellcasters who can survive a beating. This is in direct contrast to Mages, who are presented as fragile but elusive spellcasters, able to escape any trap. One class emphasizes durability; the other emphasizes mobility. Each classes’ spells and mechanics emphasize this contrast. (c.f. Demonic Teleport and Blink.)

The flavor of each specialization suggests a certain kind of character, to be sure. Affliction is good if you want a hexer, a corruptor, a dark enchanter or necromancer. Demonology is the conjurer, the witch summoning dark spirits, the summoner of devils and demons. Destruction is the mad invoker, the pyromaniac. There’s flexibility for players to define their own roles within each specialization.

But mechanically, the three specializations could be summed up very simply.

  • Affliction: damage over time spells, drains.
  • Demonology: demons.
  • Destruction: direct damage spells.

Mechanics have to support the fantasy of the class and specialization, or else the class feels wrong to play.

In Cataclysm, the mechanics of each Warlock spec failed to deliver on their promised fantasy. They created a dissonance between what players thought they should be playing versus what they actually played, which in turn contributed to the flight from the Warlock class.

  • Destruction had more DoTs than Affliction or Demonology.
  • Demonology had more (and better) nukes than Destruction.
  • Demonology didn’t have much to do with demons.
  • Affliction was forced to use Destruction spells instead of drains.

Let’s look at each one in turn.

THE PROBLEM OF DESTRUCTION

Destruction had more DoTs than Affliction in Cataclysm. Affliction had more overall debuffs to monitor, but in terms of actual damage over time spells, Destruction used more.

Destruction had 5 DoTs contributing to its PvE damage, with the player having to manage 4 of them. Affliction and Demonology had 4 DoTs, with players having to manage 3 of them.

If a player wanted to play “the DoT spec” and picked Affliction – which thematically is correct – they did it wrong. If they picked Destruction because they didn’t like juggling a lot of DoTs – well, that turned out to be wrong, too.

That’s bad. Players shouldn’t feel like they did things the wrong way, that there was a bait and switch between the fantasy of a class and its reality.

Contrast this with late Wrath’s model:

The only time Destro locks used Corruption in late Wrath was while moving, and even then only if you didn’t need to Life Tap or Death Coil was on CD. It was better than doing nothing while moving, but it was never part of the standard rotation. You wouldn’t use Corruption in a Patchwerk fight.

Destro had distinctly different damage sources before Cataclysm. Wrath Destruction had a few DoTs, Burning Crusade Destruction had a few DoTs – it’s part of the class flavor – but it was never the DoT spec.

Until Cataclysm.

THE PROBLEM OF NUKES

Demonology had more nukes, and more useful nukes, than Destruction.

While I counted Conflagrate as a CD-locked nuke for my complexity analysis, thematically it’s not really one – you don’t stand and cast it, and it doesnt have a travel time. It’s not visceral, like shooting a sheet of fire from your fingers or hurling a meteor at your enemy.

But even if we include Conflag, I also have to point out that at current gear levels, Chaos Bolt drops out of the Destro rotation because Incinerate scales much, much better with Spellpower.

Compare it to Demo, where Shadow Bolt is a solid filler – but when Molten Core procs, Incinerate becomes a better nuke – and when Decimation procs, Soul Fire becomes the execute nuke of choice. On top of that, Hand of Gul’dan hits harder than Incinerate, provides a debuff on the target, refreshes your primary DoT, and buffs your demon’s damage.

Destro uses Soul Fire to keep up a buff and as a proc, not an execute. The signature 31-point talent nuke doesn’t add anything special, and it gets beaten out by Incinerate.

Why does Demonology have more interesting nukes than Destruction? It’s not that Demo shouldn’t have interesting nukes, too – it’s that Destro fails to deliver on the spec’s promise that you’ll be slinging fire. You sling it, but only after you’ve gotten all of your DoTs ticking.

If anything, Destro’s use of Incinerate/Soul Fire feels more like Affliction’s Shadow Bolt/Haunt mechanic than Demo’s nuke weaving – one nuke for damage, another one for buff refreshing.

That’s not right. It should feel fast and furious – and distinct.

THE PROBLEM OF DEMONOLOGY

Why doesn’t Demonology have more to do with demons?

It’s kind of strange to phrase it like that, but when you look at the mechanics of what Demo Warlocks use, there’s demon form on 2 minute CD, and a unique demon… which is only used in AoE situations, not on bosses. And that’s it.

For the master of demons, that’s kind of disappointing, isn’t it?

This isn’t a problem I think got dramatically worse in Cataclysm. Rather, the spec has always lacked a real emphasis upon demons. The fel flavor is there in name, but not in execution. If you look just at the mechanics, Metamorphosis and Felguard are the extent of demonic influence for the spec. Demonology lacks cosmetic features (demonic horns and wings, demonic flight form, glowing fel tattoos on the character) to emphasize the vision of the spec, while the mechanics are grounded solidly in shadow and fire magic – not conjuration.

A demon form every two minutes, and the ability to save shards while switching demons. That’s what being a master demonologist got you in Cataclysm.

THE PROBLEM OF DRAIN LIFE SPEC

Cataclysm launched with some Warlock spells being unintentionally powerful. This was usually as a result of specialization and Mastery bonuses. There was a point where Searing Pain – formerly used for PvP and Warlock tanking due to its high threat component – was the best filler spell for Destruction, which made a lot of tanks very concerned. But that was quickly nerfed to prevent tank heart attacks.

From Cataclysm’s beta through May 18th, 2011, Drain Life was inordinately good for Affliction – so good that it offered a viable alternative to the traditional Shadow Bolt filler spec. Instead of spending talent points in Destruction, Affdrain buffed pet damage in Demonology and only used Shadow Bolts on Nightfall procs or an opener to get stacks of Shadow Embrace.

Drain Life spec had a lot of things going for it.

  • It’s thematically appropriate to the class. Warlocks should be tough and durable.
  • It’s mechanically appropriate to the spec. Affliction uses DoTs and drains.
  • It was new and different for a spec which hasn’t changed much in two expansions.
  • It offered challenge with reward.

That last part is worth emphasizing – Drain Life spec required a little bit more skill to play than Shadow Bolt because of having to watch ticks and interrupt your Drain Life at exactly the right time while refreshing DoTs. But the reward for this complexity was worth it; Affdrain brought the buff of survivability to raiding Warlocks. It freed up healers to concentrate on other raid members during some of the most intense triage healing this game has ever seen – T11.

Shadow Bolt, on the other hand, is a Destruction spell, and requires Destruction talents to buff it into usability. There’s only one thing in Affliction which affects Shadow Bolt – the base line passive Shadow Mastery talent. Regular Mastery (Potent Affliction) doesn’t, all the other Affliction talents don’t. You have to take Bane to make it even usable, and Shadow and Flame to buff it. This is problematic while leveling with the new talent tree restrictions (no help until level 71, minimum) but it’s thematically bad. To quote Tyler Caraway from Blood Pact:

Blizzard spent an entire beta lamenting about how it really wanted for Shadow Bolt to be affliction’s filler, and yet there is absolutely no support for the spell in the affliction tree. Does it really come as a surprise that the spell that is supported by mastery and several talents ended up performing better than the spell that got kicked to the curb?

Simple fact: If you want Shadow Bolt to hold such a lauded position within the affliction spec, then why is there not talent support for it?

Rightly or wrongly, this did not fit in with Blizzard’s design goals for how DPS caster classes should work in Cataclysm. Greg Street, in Explanation of 4.2 Balance Changes:

We nerfed Drain Life because Affliction was forsaking Shadowbolt in PvE, which wasn’t intended. We want Drain Life to be for utility, not primarily for damage, and we want all casters to have to hard cast at least some of the time. This was done via hotfix and players won’t see a change in 4.2.

The Drain Life spec fit Affliction’s theme. It fulfilled fantasy of the spec – a strong but tough vampire-like caster, taking health from their enemy and using it to fuel their own dark magics. It offered a unique reward for mastering the most complicated class in Warcraft. It was interesting and different. But, because Drain Life was a channeled utility spell, it did not fit the intended model for DPS.

It was therefore eliminated.

I don’t know if I can underscore this point enough. The fantasy of the Affliction spec was set aside for general design principles, not balance. It wasn’t that Drain Life was too powerful — it was on par with Shadow Bolt spec — it’s that it was too useful. Raiders don’t really care if a spell is channeled or hard cast, they have to stop moving for both of them.

But it was important to Blizzard that Affliction use Shadow Bolt and not Drain Life.

Why?

Why was it so important to force Affliction to use Shadow Bolt, instead of embracing the soul of the spec and going with Drain Life?

I think this is a legitimate question to ask in light of what happened to Warlocks in Cataclysm. I believe that had Drain Life spec been allowed to flourish, Warlock popularity would not have dropped as much as it did. Inelegant Complexity without Reward would have been replaced by Inelegant Complexity with Reward.

Yes, players would still have wrestled with the complexity of the class, but they would be able to say, I make our healer’s lives easier. I make it so we can two-heal this encounter instead of three-heal it, because I can heal myself through the whole thing.

I don’t know if keeping Drain Life spec Affliction would have been enough to save the class. I honestly don’t.

But I do know it would have given Affliction a fighting chance.

THE PROBLEM OF DRAIN MANA

OH MY GOD … they are right… I have no mana drain. Plus a bunch of other crap has been changed. I check the patch notes. UA weakened, devour magic weakend, CoE weakend, fel armour drastically weakend everyone who plays a warlocks wobby has been nerfed by 60% size reduction.(I look downstairs… MY GOD ITS TRUE… My wife is gonna be so upset) Why whyyyyyy? I dont understand… what did we do wrong?

I decide to go to outlands to take down some level 70s. But my dots are easily expelled and I have no mana drain to kill their healers and I dont have the survivablity anymore to propel their powerful lvl 70 attacks.

So I head to stranglethornvale to farm some mobs for my leatherworking. But my dots are easily expelled and i have no mana drain, so their level 30 healers make quick work of me.

Ive had enough. I log off wow.

By the end of the week my wife has left me for a new man in her life. Rodney Oboogaboo. A pygmy paupa new guinian 35 year old paper boy with a skin irritation that bleeds a smelly puss like substance. But he plays a frost mage and can pull more DPS then I can. But what can I do? my dots are easily expelled and I have no mana drain.

- Your kind aint welcome here, Zhing @ Frostmourne

The 4.0.6 patch had a lot of changes for Warlocks. Most notable was the complete removal of Drain Mana from the game, which prompted the classic Warlock forum thread above. The Felhunter’s Devour Magic (offensive dispel) was given a 20 second CD, up from 8. Unstable Affliction’s silence was reduced and Fel Armor was completely redesigned.

Losing Drain Mana sucked, but not for the reasons you thought.

These changes were all PvP changes, and in hindsight they were (probably) needed. They were part of a discussion of Upcoming Class Changes which included the following analysis from Greg Street:

The larger health pools, decreased impact of Mortal Strike debuffs, and slower healing are all having the desired effect in PvP. Burst damage has its place, but doesn’t determine the outcome of every encounter. There are several individual abilities that we aren’t happy with in PvP.

We’re keeping a close eye on dispels. We still like the design of making dispels more of a commitment rather than liberally sprinkling around dispel resistance or consequences for every class. Defensive dispels (removing a debuff) generally feel good, but we think offensive dispels (removing an enemy buff) feel too powerful, especially for DPS specs. In particular, Purge and Spellsteal will probably get nerfed.

We’re also looking at crowd control, interrupts, and self-healing in PvP. It’s possible we’ll reduce the durations of some crowd control effects, especially the area effect ones, and decrease the duration of interrupts.

Priests are a little weak in PvP, especially at mobile healing. We have made some changes to glyphs and talents to enhance their survivability and instant healing.

There was an overhaul of PvP mechanics during this patch, with CC durations being standardized, interrupts and counterspells being set on a standard CD, that sort of thing. Warlocks had a lot of changes to absorb, but they adapted. You cannot look back at the PvP changes of 4.0.6 and say they made Warlocks useless in PvP. You can’t even say that they hurt them much at the top levels of the game – Warlocks were strong in rated PvP throughout the entire expansion. The really good Warlock players adapted to every change and still excelled.

But this overhaul introduced changes which contributed to the decline of Warlocks in Cataclysm.

There were two types of changes:

  • Changes which widened the skill gap between the great and the good.
  • Changes which made other classes look more attractive or easier to play.

Changes to some PvP abilities were applied across the board in this patch – consistent CC and counterspell durations. When an ability is standardized across classes, no one really complains – it feels fair. But when it’s changed for one and not another, it makes classes feel singled out. It makes players compare classes and consider questions like: would I be more effective playing something else?

Drain Mana’s removal wasn’t bad in and of itself, it was that it was removed while Mana Burn was left intact that was the problem. It wasn’t that Devour Magic got a 12 second increase to its CD, it’s that other offensive dispels didn’t get the same CD – or any CD at all. It’s not that the automatic self-healing of Fel Armor was removed, but rather that other classes didn’t see a similar reduction.

“Priests are a little weak in PvP,” noted Ghostcrawler, and in that context the removal of Drain Mana without the corresponding loss of Mana Burn makes sense. Other caster classes needed to be made more attractive in PvP, so Warlocks were made less effective. This – combined with all these other changes – made it harder for average Warlock players in PvP, who then looked at the other classes and realized they were more attractive at their skill level: easier to play, more effective abilities, fewer buttons to push.

If it wasn’t Drain Mana, it was Fel Armor. If it wasn’t this patch, it was the 12% damage nerf in 4.1. The little things piled up until players decided it wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.

At some point, people started realizing it wasn’t fun for them anymore, and either rerolled or quit.

Inelegant Complexity without Reward strikes again.

THE PROBLEM OF HAVE GROUP WILL TRAVEL AND WARLOCK UTILITY

Have Group, Will Travel is an insanely useful level 21 guild perk. With it, any member of a guild can summon their entire party or raid to their location. It has a long CD, but since it’s available to everyone there are usually enough to bring any last-minute stragglers into any guild activity.

It’s easy to use, too – click on the ability and it summons your party/raid.

Compare this to the Warlock Ritual of Summoning: a single class has access to it, requires 2 other people and a bunch of clicking, but it has no CD.

Have Group, Will Travel is the superior ability. It eclipses the Warlock summons in nearly every aspect, effectively negating the class perk. This, no doubt, hasn’t helped with overall satisfaction of the Warlock class. It’s not special or unique anymore. About the best you can say is that it’s always available if you have a Warlock around. But Warlocks can’t use it on their own – it has to be part of a group.

The wrong thing to do is to remove Have Group, Will Travel so that Warlocks can feel useful about this ability again. This solves the problem of uniqueness for a small fragment of the playerbase at the cost of increased dissatisfaction for everyone. People like HGWT. It’s useful. Taking it away will just piss a lot of people off.

The right thing to do here is to make Ritual of Summoning better than Have Group, Will Travel. Make it as easy to use as HGWT – no need for a group – with a reasonable cooldown. Do it by Glyph – let Warlock players choose between a Demon TV (which can be used all the time but needs 2 other players) or a HGWT group summon with a 10 minute CD.

Don’t go backwards with quality of life improvements just to make a class feel special.

Make them feel special by giving them a better quality of life.

Next up is the final post of this series, Out of the Mists: Reclaiming Warlocks in Pandaria, where I’ll finally start looking ahead to Mists of Pandaria and the complete reworking of the Warlock class.

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Appendix A: Warlock Spell Changes in Cataclysm

As I was writing about Complexity and the Warlock’s Magic Number I found that I had a lot to say about specific spell changes that happened within Cataclysm. There were a lot of spells which were changed in very specific, inelegant ways that only players of the class noticed. These changes added up over the course of the expansion.

However, as I dove into the arcana of a lot of these spell changes, I found that they were drowning out the main point of that post. The individual changes were problems, but it was the mental chunking which was the problem. Dwelling on the different iterations of the Improved Soul Fire buff was obscuring the main point, which was that the buff was there at all.

But Warlock players went through those changes, and each one of these spells actively contributed to a culture of complexity which plagued the class throughout Cataclysm. Instead of cluttering up the narrative with my observations, I’ve chosen to move them to the back of the book, as it were, and drop them into an appendix.

This is the first for this series. There will probably be more.

APPENDIX A: WARLOCK SPELL CHANGES IN CATACLYSM

What happens when the game gets harder for you to play?

In some ways, this has been the core problem of Cataclysm. This expansion increased difficulty … everywhere, really. Stats dropped off quickly as you leveled through those 5 levels from 80-85. Healers hit 83 and watched their healing drop off the face of the planet. Leveling through questing involved dying again, sometimes a lot of dying. Dungeons became grueling, punishing exercises in punishment. Leveling dungeons involved a brutal step up from Wrath Heroics. T11 Raids were a brick wall that broke many guilds.

Many experienced, good players got a taste of the new environment of Cataclysm and said, screw this, this isn’t fun. Others said, great, finally, a challenge.

But, you know, an awful lot of players went ahead and said, that’s it, I’m done. Sixteen percent of the playerbase voted with their wallets and decided there were more fun things for them to do than play Cataclysm. Twenty-eight percent of Warlocks decided there was something better to do or play. My opinion is that the increased difficulty of the endgame had a lot to do with that, though there were no doubt other issues at work as well.

The split in opinion on how Warlocks are faring reminds me of the split on whether Cataclysm’s increased difficulty was a good thing. Warlocks became more difficult to play in Cataclysm, which led to fewer players being able to play it at a level where it was fun.

Did it really get more difficult?

Yes, yes it absolutely did.

Looking at the changes Warlocks received in Cataclysm, a clear picture emerges of a class that added more abilities and buttons without any corresponding simplification. There may have been quality of life improvements elsewhere, but operating a Warlock in Cataclysm involved more buttons than one in Wrath.

Affliction received a few changes:

  • Soul Swap added as multi-dotting spell
  • Soul Burn: Seed of Corruption added as multi-dotting spell

Demonology got a new nuke and a DoT refresh, but the clunky refresh mechanics were really problematic:

  • Hand of Gul’dan added as fourth nuke
  • Hand of Gul’dan refresh period works awkwardly with Immolate’s new Haste mechanics (Cannot be reliable refresh with Haste effects: 12 second CD + 2 second cast time + travel time vs. 15 second Immolate)
  • Demon swapping (starting with Felhunter, swapping to Succy/Felguard) required pet juggling
  • Metamorphosis CD became variable.

Destruction had a massive overhaul, gaining 3 DoTs, a nuke, and a buff that required constant uptime:

  • Improved Soul Fire buff required, very dependent upon RNG for instant Soul Fire casts via Empowered Imp
  • Soul Fire added as third nuke
  • Corruption, Bane of Doom, and Burning Embers all added as important DoTs
  • Bane of Havoc required for multi-dotting, limited to single target


On top of those changes, every single spec gained the following:

  • Improved Soul Fire as required buff to maintain through 4.0.6 for all specs, requiring three Soul Burned Soul Fires or hard cast Soul Fires to maintain every 15 seconds. Could not refresh before it fell off due to ICD.
  • Shadowflame added to rotation, required near-melee range every 12 seconds (Teleport CD still 25 seconds)
  • Demon Soul added as a 2 minute CD
  • Dark Intent added as required buff, required reapplication if target died
  • Fel Flame added as a moving nuke/DoT refresh, but lacked DPCT to be in normal rotation without T11 4-pc bonus.
  • Guardians (Doomguard, Infernal) no longer caused regular demons to despawn, making them a required 10 minute CD on boss fights.
  • Curses and Banes were split apart, situationally adding another debuff to maintain.

Spec by spec summary:

  • Affliction: 1 buff, 1 melee AoE, 2 long CDs. ISF through 4.0.6, Fel Flame through T11. were removed.
  • Demo: 1 nuke on short CD with refresh issues, 1 buff, 1 melee AoE, 2 long CDs. Demon swapping in 4.06 through 4.2, ISF through 4.0.6, Fel Flame through T11.
  • Destro: 1 nuke, 3 dots, 2 buffs, 2 long CDs, 1 melee AoE. Fel Flame through T11.


To sum up:All Warlocks rotations were made more complicated in Cataclysm. Nothing was made simpler.

It doesn’t matter if we look at other classes and see if Warlocks fared better or worse compared to them; this isn’t a complexity sweepstakes. The fact that abilities were added without any corresponding simplification of the existing rotation is the important one. If you take a complex class which was doing relatively well in Wrath (well in terms of fun and player acceptance) and then add more buttons to push, have you really added anything? Or just made the class harder to play?

Only focusing on player skill and ability, this design direction is disturbing. If you have a class which is reasonably complicated to play well, but has some variation between the different specs, and then you make them all uniformly more complicated and demanding, aren’t you going to alienate some of those players who previously enjoyed it? If you introduce mechanics which require absolute precision in execution for substantial portions of the class’s output, aren’t you going to cause some players who formerly worked within a more forgiving rotation to struggle?

Additional complexity might be acceptable if it translates into something that’s more fun or better output. But if it doesn’t and it’s just complexity for complexity’s sake, then players will rightly become dissatisfied and look around for simpler options.

I think this is what happened to Warlocks in Cataclysm. The rotations got both more complicated and less forgiving in this expansion, with no option for a more forgiving spec. It is still possible to master this class and these rotations; the performance of Warlocks in Heroic mode raiding attests to that. But it is more work. It is harder to master.

And under the Bring the Player model, there’s not a lot of incentive to overcome the additional complexity.

I’m going to discuss a few of these changes so non-Warlock players understand what kind of complexity was imposed upon the class.

Soul Swap

Soul Swap is a spell which allows Affliction Warlocks to take their DoTs from one target and apply it to another. When Glyphed, it leaves the DoTs behind on the original target but introduces a cooldown on the spell. In PvP, this is awesome for keeping pressure up on targets. In PvE this is used to apply DoTs on multiple targets.

The original implementation of the spell and glyph was fantastic because it had a 6 second CD. Soul Swap was a valuable, welcome addition to the Affliction toolkit, useful in dungeons, questing, raids, PvP – everywhere. I used it a lot while doing Tol Barad dailies because it allowed me to spread DoTs quickly between multiple mobs as I pulled through the various areas, much like how Drain Tanking used to work. It was also really great in PvP, allowing you to maintain pressure across an entire team with relative ease. If your DoTs were expelled, you could quickly reapply 3 of them and keep the healers Purging/Cleansing.

Soul Swap was exceptionally powerful in PvP, so the cooldown was increased – first to 10 seconds, then to 20, then to 30. Each increase made it less useful as a spell. Soul Swap is a convenience spell – it saves you time over reapplying DoTs individually, and allows you to move while doing it. The time to reapply UA, Corruption, and Bane of Agony is 4 seconds. Soul Swap triggers the GCD, so it’s 3 seconds to inhale and exhale, or a 1 second improvement over manually dotting (plus the movement bonus, which is actually pretty cool). With a 6 second CD, you gain 10 seconds every minute; with a 30 second CD, you gain 2.

It was neat to have on your bars at first, but as the CD lengthened it just became clutter.

Hand of Gul’dan

Hand of Gul’dan was the new, distinctive nuke added into the Demonology tree. It’s a pretty cool spell that summons a meteor and surrounds the target with a circle of demonic black flame. It hits hard, increases pet damage, snares mobs, and refreshes Immolate on the target.

It also brought the number of nukes Demolocks had to worry about to 4. They already use Shadow Bolt and Incinerate as filler nukes, depending on Molten Core procs, and Soul Fire as an execute. Another button, another thing to track.

But HoG’s real problem lay in the Immolate refresh mechanic during the early days of Cataclysm. Because of the way DoTs were changed in Cata, the timing on using Hand of Gul’dan to refresh Immolate was really hard, and sometimes impossible.

Immolate has a 15 second duration. Hand of Guldan has a 12 second CD and a 2 second cast time. This leaves 1 second for a player to refresh it. However, as a nuke, there’s travel time on the spell, so there’s another .5 seconds, with possible latency on top of that. So, without any Haste, Demo Warlocks are going to have to hit HoG as soon as the CD comes up to keep Immolate on the target.

Haste makes it worse by making ticks happen faster, reducing the duration of the DoT until a new tick was added. So if you don’t have enough Haste for to just get that additional Immolate tick, Immolate is going to have less than 15 second duration – sometimes as low as 13.5 or so. During the early stages of Cataclysm, there was enough Haste to shorten Immolate’s duration but not enough to shorten HoG’s cast time to use it to refresh.

Having a spell you have to hit on CD to refresh a vital debuff isn’t a lot of fun, and it’s even less fun when it doesn’t work. There’s no choice here – either you bang out a 2 second cast every 12 seconds, or you lose DPS by letting Immolate drop or using Fel Flame to refresh it.

Work THAT into your rotations. :(

When this first came up in the Cataclysm Beta, a lot of theories were proposed of how to deal with it. (I supported lowering HoG’s CD to 10 seconds, thinking that any changes to Immolate would adversely affect Destruction.) It was a problem for the very beginning or Cataclysm.

A few months after Cataclysm’s release, Blizzard made a stealth change to the Inferno talent to extend Immolate’s duration by 6 seconds in 4.0.6. This provided two extra ticks and smoothed out the refresh mechanic.

Thank goodness.

Improved Soul Fire

Improved Soul Fire is a neat idea that was executed horribly. I mean, sorry, objectively it was implemented in such a way that required multiple redesigns and impacted all three specs and quite possibly is one of the biggest problems raiding Warlocks faced in T11.

Subjectively, it was executed horribly.

The basic idea is that casting Soul Fire put a buff on the Warlock, mirroring the nuke-for-a-damage buff behavior of Affliction (Shadow Embrace) and Demonology (Curse of Gul’dan). Improved Soul Fire was a little different because it 1) was on the Warlock, not the target, and 2) granted Haste instead of damage or Crit. Since the Imp was now granting instant Soul Fires, it might as well be used for something, right?

Well, the problem at the start of Cataclysm was twofold:

  1. The Improved Soul Fire buff was low in the Destruction tree, making it available to Affliction’s and Demonology’s raiding builds.
  2. ISF was originally designed to be used at the start of the fight, not the whole thing.

See, ISF was originally a reverse execute – only worked at > 80% target health – so having it be available to all three specs wasn’t terribly burdensome. It made good use of the new Soul Shard mechanic by demanding instant Soul Fires – really, the only use for Soul Shards for those two specs – and allowed them to start with powerful openers.

In 4.0.1 ISF was changed to a buff that would be up all the time, creating a situation where now Affliction (which doesn’t use Fire spells) and Demo (which does) needed to keep the buff throughout the entire fight – without the benefit of Empowered Imp procs. So Afflocks added Soul Fire to their bars, and all Warlocks tried to weave in a 2.5 second nuke and another buff that had to be maintained to their rotations.

Further complicating things, the buff had a 15 second internal CD – you couldn’t refresh it by hitting Soul Fire while the buff was up. You couldn’t refresh it, requiring Destro Warlocks to try to hold Empowered Imp procs until the last moment, adding another element of RNG to their rotation.

This lasted from 4.0.1 through 4.0.6. Practically, it didn’t affect Warlocks until after 4.0.3 (only available at level 85), but it was in effect for the formative first two months of Cataclysm raiding. In 4.0.6 it was removed from Affliction and Demo’s rotations as part of the massive class balance overhaul of that patch

ISF was not a good design for 2 of the 3 specs. Even though it was present for only a few months in progression raiding, it was during the initial launch period and contributed to the initial difficulty of the expansion. Warlocks who raided in early T11 did so with the clunkiest, most complicated mechanics possible.

Shadowflame

Shadowflame is an AoE cone that can be glyphed to provide a slow. In Wrath it was primarily a PvP spell for this reason, but the damage was buffed and the spell entered into every spec’s rotation. If you could do it safely, standing in melee range and hitting Shadowflame was a DPS increase.

The challenge is that getting this DPS increase involved a lot of positioning tricks to use correctly. Warlocks either needed to charge in (forcing them to cast instants) and teleport out (wasting a GCD), position themselves with the melee and stay there, or forego use of the spell until it was only situationally viable.

I love Shadowflame. I really do. But I’m also a PvPer, and I remember seeing it first pop up in the PvE Destro rotation in 4.0.1 with some surprise. Adding this spell into the rotation is more complicated than just adding another DoT to maintain – it added range and positioning to the list of things a Warlock needed to consider in a fight.

Demon Soul, Demon Swapping, and Demon Guardians

Warlocks got a new 2-minute cooldown in Cataclysm, Demon Soul, which gave Warlocks some … while I can’t call it burst, exactly, it did give the class a DPS boost every 2 minutes.

My original opinion was that this was a good ability to bring into the Warlock toolkit. This was a missing ability, something that was usually filled in with On Use trinkets in Wrath. It requires proper attention to procs to maximize its utility, it’s interesting and challenging and it offers a direct reward for proper usage – a DPS spike.

I wanted to put Demon Soul out there as an ability that added complexity, but with immediate reward. A 2 minute DPS cooldown is pretty straightforward, offers a clear benefit, and is interesting without being overwhelming (especially since the class lacked one before.) The idea of it is great. The implementation of it was somewhat lackluster.

The effect depends entirely upon which demon was currently deployed, so at different times it could be advantageous to start off with one demon (say, the Felhunter), pop Demon Soul, then switch to a different demon (Succubus or Felguard) using a Soul Shard, and repeat as necessary. That was a complicated concept, a clunky mechanic, and probably not the best way to construct an optimal DPS rotation. But it was a side effect of pet balancing issues interacting poorly with this spell.

The other long cooldown spell that was added in Cataclysm was the revamped Demon Guardians, or the old Doomguard and Infernal. The biggest change was that summoning these two behemoths no longer despawned your regular demon, which was a vast improvement over the previous model. The Guardians became a long (10 minute) cooldown you could use once a boss fight.

All these things add up. Either you use all the tools in the toolbox, or your DPS will suffer.

Both of these changes were prima face benefits to the class. In hindsight, I think they actually caused more trouble than they were worth by adding additional mental complexity – an entire new chunk for Warlock players to have to juggle. Had they been added in isolation, they might have been good benefits.

But in addition to the other changes each spec underwent, this was just more fuel on the fire.

Pet Management

I’m not sure what to say about the state of Demons in Cataclysm.

The numerous changes to the pet AI in Cataclsym caused a lot of problems – demons not chasing feared units, demons randomly switching targets, demons randomly slipping into Passive or ignoring /petattack commands. Given that demons are a substantial part of a Warlock’s DPS, these bugs require players devote mental energy to managing their demon.

A lot of attention. SO NEEDY.

The nice thing about chunking theory is that you can just add this in as one more chunk that you have to worry about now, that you didn’t have to worry about then. It’s not that players can’t micromanage their demons – it’s that they have to do it in the first place which causes the problem.

There were periods when players had to swap out demons mid-fight for DPS gains, and those are splashy examples that are nice to point at as problems of elegance. But the persistent pet bugs represented a more insidious problem, one where a major component of your DPS would just randomly stop.

Demons would bug out on platforms. They’d bug out on Ultrax. They’d bug out on Magmaw. They’d bug out trying to finish the legendary quest.

I’m not someone who enjoys micromanaging their pet. I want them to attack when I attack and attack the target I ask them to attack, until I tell them to stop.

Pet management is a big problem if 1/4-1/3 of your DPS comes from your pet.

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Warlock Complexity and the Magic Number

This post is the fourth in the Decline of Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Why are some warlocks doing well in Cataclysm while the class, as a whole, is shedding players?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question a lot since the last post in this series. While the overwhelming feedback I’ve received has been of people struggling with their Warlocks, there’s been a decided minority saying the opposite. I’m having no problems at all, I enjoy the complexity, we’re not broken.

Both kinds of feedback are important to listen to. It’s human nature to put weight into opinions which agree with our own, and dismiss those which contradict. Whatever reasons there are for the struggles of the Warlock class in Cataclysm, they have to take into account that the class did not fall apart everywhere. The mechanics and playstyle are adequate at the highest levels to not warrant immediate, urgent fixes like an across-the-board damage increase.

At the same time, we cannot dismiss the feedback of Warlock players who said, I struggled in Cataclysm. I tried everything I could and couldn’t get my DPS up to acceptable levels. I could bring in a Hunter or Mage alt and immediately do more DPS with worse gear. It’s as wrong to dismiss this feedback – just because it doesn’t fit in with our personal experience – as it is to dismiss that there are Warlocks doing well.

This conflict manifests itself in forum chatter across the Warcraft community. This class sucks faces off with L2P, noob, and there’s not a lot of middle ground given in the discourse. Either Warlocks are fine, learn to play, or Warlocks are broken, this class is underpowered, as though the other viewpoint somehow invalidates your own.

It’s not always the most civil dialogue, to be honest. It can sometimes be hard to accept divergent views on the Internet.

But if you get past all the name calling and accept both positions as valid – they’re not mutually exclusive, after all – you’re only left with a few explanations that make any sense.

  • More skill was required to do top DPS due to increased rotational complexity, thereby increasing the number of players unable to perform at the required level.
  • The penalties for failure increased due to more unforgiving, inelegant mechanics.
  • The class is highly gear dependent due to mechanics; performance decreases sharply with suboptimal gear.

It’s essential that we talk about this humanely, because each and every one of these explanations could be interpreted as a failure of the player, not the class. Each and every one of these could be, and often is, twisted into a kind of judgement upon struggling players. And that’s shameful and incorrect. It’s a terrible thing to do to another person, it’s a terrible thing to do to yourself.

And it’s wrong. I don’t mean just mean wrong in a moral sense – I mean it’s incorrect in an analytical sense. It’s a flawed judgement to make. It may be correct in individual cases, it is incorrect when considered in the aggregate.

Let’s get this out in the open. If you’re blaming a struggling player simply because they’re a Wrath Baby, you’re wrong. If you’re dismissing their problems as QQ, you’re wrong. If you’re blaming them because they need to learn how to play, you’re wrong.

And if you’re dismissing people for succeeding at playing a Warlock because they’re elitist, you’re wrong too. Only successful because they have a legendary? Wrong.

These problems are systematic problems of the class. That’s why they show up in an aggregate view of many players, not just individuals. The changes introduced in Cataclysm increased the difficulty of playing Warlocks to the point where players who previously were proficient were no longer able to keep up when performing under duress. Raising the bar of competence doesn’t suddenly make someone a “baddie” if they fail to keep up.

All it means is that the bar got raised.

Blame the person who raised the bar, not the people who could no longer jump over it.

The theory of Inelegant Complexity without Reward from the previous post talks about this indirectly, and focuses on player’s rational decisions when confronted with a class that was harder than the alternatives. In this post, I want to focus on the additional complexity and inelegance added in Cataclysm and its direct effect upon the players who played Warlocks.

MAGIC NUMBERS AND CHUNKING

George A. Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” published in 1956, is a famous psychological paper which investigates human beings’ capacity for short term memory. How many items can the brain hold in short term memory at one time? Miller’s original research pointed to the idea that 7 (plus or minus 2) was the limit most humans have for the amount of data they can retain.

Miller’s number has been hotly debated since this paper’s release. Some say that it’s 6, others 4. It seems to vary according to the type of data being stored and how the test subject frames that data. (My own experience designing UI and voice systems has been that it’s really around 4, but I’m also not a psychologist.)

How we conceptualize data is important. If you presented test subjects with a list of three words (“Apple, Banana, Bicycle”) to a group of subjects, their recall is going to be dependent upon one key skill – do they speak English? If they do, then the likelihood of their remembering them is pretty high, since the letters are grouped into units – words. If it’s in a different language, then the subject has to remember 20 or so letters, spaces, and punctuation marks. (Consider the same experiment in Basque: “Sagar, Banana, Bizikleta”).

This organization of data into discrete, understandable bits is called chunking, and I think it’s a vital concept to understanding how we play video games. Chunking is taking bits of related data or actions or mental things and putting them together into a conceptual unit. When we are first learning a task our mental chunks are small – you have to consciously think about each little tiny step. How do I move, how do I target, how do I cast. You start at the primitive level of “I need to physically move the mouse this way to make this thing happen on the computer screen” and advance all the way up to “I have 3 adds don’t let Shadow Embrace fall off of any of them.”

As you get better at a task the individual steps fade into the chunks and you can better perform more and more complex actions. This is why a lot of Warlocks spend so much time at the training dummies – they are trying to internalize the routine of their casting so that when asked to perform them under duress, they can execute without thinking. When your feet are on fire and the raid leader is yelling at you to pick up adds, you don’t want to have to stop and think about how to apply DoTs; you just want to do it.

I think these concepts are important to consider when looking at how the Warlock class changed over Cataclysm. There are human limits to how many variables you can juggle in your head, and the Warlock changes may have stretched the game past that point for many players.

Let’s examine the class changes and see.

THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH OF RISING COMPLEXITY

Consider Destruction’s playstyle in Wrath of the Lich King:

  1. Curse of Doom or Curse of the Elements. 1-5 minute refreshes.
  2. Immolate on the target? NO? Here Mr. Bossman, GET YOU SOME IMMOLATE.
  3. Chaos Bolt! ZAP!
  4. Conflagrate!
  5. Incinerate! BZAP!
  6. Life Tap to keep the buff up! (Through certain gear levels in ICC, then this stopped)
  7. Force cast your Imp’s fireball!

That was it. (It was enough fun to warrant the exclamation points.)

One curse, one DoT, three nukes which you had to juggle, and one spellpower buff tied in to your mana replenishment ability. There was some debate about using Corruption when you had to move, and possibly using Soulburn during an execute phase, but that was it. Your pet was the Imp; using the Doomguard at the end of a fight was a possibility but not always a good one. Force casting your Imp’s attack was through macros, it was simple.

Notice how you can chunk these actions together:

  • DoTs, debuffs, buffs: CoD/Life Tap/Immolate are a similar group of things to monitor, one which is easy to subitize (rapidly assess at a glance.)
  • Nukes: The other chunk is your nukes – Chaos Bolt if it’s up, Conflag if it’s up, then Incinerate. Conflag creates Backdraft, so you usually follow it with three Incinerates.

This left a lot of mental room for players to deal with the mechanics of various fights. Are you standing in Defile? DON’T STAND IN DEFILE. Circle down for the Valks? Shadowfury or Shadowflame on the Valks? YOUR FEET ARE ON FIRE MOVE.

The Warlock toolkit was still there for the specific encounter requirements, but the basic chunks of the rotation were easy to execute.

Compare this to Destruction’s priority rotation in Cataclysm:

  1. Improved Soul Fire buff
  2. Demon Soul on CD
  3. Infernal or Doomguard on CD, as appropriate
  4. Immolate
  5. Bane of Doom, Havok for adds
  6. Conflagrate
  7. Curse of the Elements (or some other debuff as required).
  8. Shadowflame
  9. Corruption
  10. Burning Embers
  11. Chaos Bolt
  12. Incinerate
  13. Soul Fire on Empowered Imp proc or to maintain ISF or on Soul Shard CD for T13
  14. Force cast the Imp’s Fire Bolt
  15. Dark Intent buff
  16. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

… holy shit.

Let’s try to make some sense of that and chunk that apart.

  • DoTs, debuffs, and buffs: ISF, Bane, Curse, Immo, Corruption, Burning Embers, Dark Intent.
  • Cooldowns: Demon Soul, Doomguard
  • Nukes: Chaos Bolt, Soul Fire, Incinerate, Fel Flame (sometimes)
  • AoE: Shadowflame
  • Procs: Empowered Imp

… don’t forget to Life Tap?

I think the above chunking model might be too simple – like, if we strictly categorize our DoTs, buffs, and debuffs together it works, but there are 7 things to keep track of in that one chunk. You’re probably going to forget about Burning Embers, and maybe you can watch Dark Intent if you put it near your trinket and weapon procs. That’s really two chunks, except that there’s not really a good way to logically break it apart – maybe DoTs separate from buffs/debuffs?

Another point to consider is that because Destro gained more DoTs, refreshing those DoTs during any item procs became much more important. It’s not that you didn’t need to watch your procs in Wrath – you did – but in Cataclysm you needed to refresh more spells (Immolate, Corruption, BoD/A) and you needed to consider your cooldown usage to time with those procs.

As Destruction had a reputation for being the simple Warlock spec in Wrath, why don’t we look at something with a reputation for complexity next? Affliction fits the bill.

In Wrath, Affliction needed to deal with:

  1. Life Tap buff (3.1 through 3.3.5)
  2. Keep 2-3 stacks of Shadow Embrace up on the target (was 2 until 3.3.5).
  3. Keep Haunt on the target (Haunt on CD)
  4. Unstable Affliction
  5. Corruption
  6. Curse of Agony
  7. (Soul Siphon until 3.0.8)
  8. Drain Soul as execute ( Shadow Bolt filler (sometimes with a Nightfall proc)
  9. Force cast Felhunter’s Shadow Bite

This is complicated in practice because of the large number of DoTs, but can be chunked pretty easily:

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Shadow Embrace, Haunt, Unstable Affliction, Curse of Agony, Soul Siphon, Life Tap buff. Life Tap was really easy to maintain – it was a 40 second buff and constant healing from Soul Siphon and Fel Armor made it a straight mana/DPS gain.
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Drain Soul

Affliction was rightly the DoT/debuff spec in Wrath – 4 dots and 2 debuffs is a lot to juggle. Haunt made it a bit easier, since refreshed Corruption and Shadow Embrace alike, as well as its own debuff.

Affliction received the fewest changes in Cataclysm, but that’s not to say that it was unchanged.

  1. Improved Soul Fire buff (4.0 through 4.0.6)
  2. Demon Soul on CD
  3. Doomguard on CD
  4. 3 stacks of Shadow Embrace up on the target
  5. Haunt on the target (Haunt on CD)
  6. Unstable Affliction
  7. Corruption
  8. Bane of Doom/Agony
  9. Curse of the Elements
  10. Shadowflame
  11. Drain Soul as execute ( Shadow Bolt filler (sometimes with a Nightfall proc)
  12. Optional Drain Life filler (through 4.1)
  13. Force cast Felpup Shadow Bite / Succy’s Lash of Pain
  14. Dark Intent buff
  15. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

Affliction started out more complicated in Cataclysm than it ended up – the addition of the Improved Soul Fire buff was out of place for the spec, the Fel Flame addition in T11 was kinda meh. The Bane/Curse split didn’t affect Affliction locks as much as some, because adding a 5 minute curse on top of other DoTs really isn’t that big of a deal.

The addition of cooldowns, however, represents a new mental chunk for this spec.

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Shadow Embrace, Haunt, Unstable Affliction, Corruption, Bane of Doom/Agony, Curse of the Elements
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Drain Life, Drain Soul, Fel Flame
  • Buffs: ISF, Dark Intent
  • AoE: Soul Swap, Shadowflame
  • Cooldowns: Demon Soul, Doomguard

Again, we see that the DoT/Debuff chunk starts getting big if we keep ISF/Dark Intent in the same mental space, but thankfully ISF was removed and you could relegate Dark Intent to the same chunk as watching your item procs.

Affliction’s chunks got more complicated, and there were more of them. Affliction now needed to manage cooldowns and time DoT refreshes accordingly; sometimes Haunt does not line up with your procs and you end up refreshing Corruption at the wrong time.

Demonology in Wrath was different from the other two specs; it had cooldowns. I played it extensively in 3.3.5 in ICC and found it to be highly engaging, a nice mix of DoT management, nuke choice, massive AoE potential with a few interesting CDs.

Demonology changed a lot during Wrath of the Lich King, so I’m just going to snapshot it as it was in 3.3.5:

  1. Life Tap buff
  2. Metamorphosis on CD as appropriate
  3. Immolation Aura if you could get close to the boss during Meta phase
  4. Curse of Doom
  5. Immolate
  6. Corruption
  7. Soul Fire (execute during Decimation)
  8. Incinerate (during Molten Core procs)
  9. Shadow Bolt filler
  10. Force cast your Felguard’s Cleave

Even the non-Warlocks should be able to chunk these abilities out by now.

  • DoTs, buffs, debuffs: Immolate, Corruption, Curse of Doom, Life Tap buff
  • Nukes: Soul Fire, Incinerate, Shadow Bolt
  • CDs: Metamorphosis/Immolation Aura (really a single CD used together – a chunk within a chunk!)

The challenge of Demo was that it involved some DoT management and some nuke management woven together. It was a nice balance between Affliction and Destruction, and had a very nice (and distinctive) DPS cooldown built in.

Cataclysm didn’t change the central idea of the spec (mixing DoTs and nukes), but it sure added complexity to it.

  1. ISF buff through 4.0.6
  2. Curse of the Elements
  3. Metamorphosis on variable CD as appropriate
  4. Demon Soul on CD as appropriate
  5. Doomguard on CD as approproate
  6. Immolation Aura if you could get close to the boss during Meta phase
  7. Immolate
  8. Bane of Doom
  9. Shadowflame
  10. Corruption
  11. Hand of Gul’dan on CD (tight CDs through 4.0.6)
  12. Soul Fire (execute during Decimation)
  13. Incinerate (during Molten Core procs)
  14. Shadow Bolt filler
  15. Force cast Felguard/Felpup attacks
  16. Dark Intent buff
  17. Fel Flame with T11 or while moving

Demonology gained a refresh nuke much like Affliction’s Haunt in Cataclysm, providing them with a unique spell that does damage, applies a debuff, and refreshes Immolate. The refresh mechanism ran into a lot of problems during the launch of Cataclysm, but was fixed in 4.0.6. (See Appendix A for more information on this.) This, plus the other now-standard additions to the Warlock rotation gives us:

  • DoTs and Debuffs: Immolate, Curse of Gul’dan, Corruption, Bane of Doom, Curse of the Elements
  • Nukes/Drains: Shadow Bolt, Incinerate, Hand of Gul’dan, Soul Fire
  • Buffs: ISF, Dark Intent
  • AoE: Shadowflame
  • Cooldowns: Metamorphosis/Immolation Aura, Demon Soul, Doomguard

I think the complexity of each chunk is worth noting here – each one increases by one or two variables, which in turn causes the entire spec to feel … heavier. More difficult. Used to juggling 3 nukes? Here, have a 4th. Have an additional debuff or two. Have Shadowflame in there. Have another CD that doesn’t quite match up with your normal one.

The inconvenient truth of Warlocks in Cataclysm is that they objectively became more difficult to play. Their abilities spiraled out of control without real benefit to players. Not only did the number of abilities increase, but the types of abilities increased as well, requiring players to use more mental chunks trying to keep track of it all. Eventually, that put many of the players over their magic number, causing them to flounder with a class that they used to be good at.

In the last post I talked a lot about the idea that abolishing the Simplicity Tax helped drive players away – that if there are simpler options available which do equally well or better, players will abandon the complex class. We now need to consider the Warlock class as getting increasingly more difficult over time. This erodes player confidence in their abilities, distances them from their chosen main character, and eventually alienates them from the game.

This is absolutely the wrong design direction for a class. As a class gets more complicated fewer players will be able to master it, and players who had mastered it will start falling by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong – this is a balancing act. Classes don’t need to be as simple as possible. Warlocks don’t need to return to the Shadow Destruction days.

But I think we’ve seen that Cataclysm brought complexity for complexity’s sake, and that it really frustrated many players. Not only did it become a barrier to entry, it became a barrier to continue playing!

As the game rises in levels, this is an issue that absolutely has to be addressed. If new abilities are to be granted, either old ones need to be removed, obsoleted, or made so that they are obviously not useful in certain situations. The class cannot continue in this direction, period. Continuing to make a class more difficult will only result in it frustrating more and more of its playerbase. This is bad for player fun, this is bad for the bottom line.

Any evaluation of class revisions in Mists must take this inconvenient truth into account. Yes, it may be cool to have new abilities, new spells. But are they grouped coherently? Can you chunk them and make sense of them, or will you flail trying to keep track of all of the new amazing things? Will the default UI suffice, or will it require players to have highly customized UIs to display the information necessary to the class in a comprehensible manner to players?

It’s fine that Warlocks are the complex caster class. Many Warlock players enjoy that complexity, and have enjoyed the additional complexity Cataclysm brought to their class.

But this can’t continue. The class is already at a cognitive tipping point where it’s just too much. If Blizzard wants to stop the Warlock class from being actively harmful to their subscriber numbers, the class needs to get simpler and easier to play.

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Filed under Cynwise's Warcraft Manual, Warlockery

Where Did All The Warlocks Go in Cataclysm?

This is the first post in The Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series.

Where have all the warlocks gone?

I heard this question more and more often as Cataclysm progressed. Raid leaders struggled to recruit them. Players didn’t see them in LFD, or later, in LFR. Battleground appearances became increasingly rare. Leveling warlocks became an elusive beast for me to find on my own leveling tanks and healers.

It’s not like warlocks were hugely popular in Wrath of the Lich King, but I didn’t recall quite so many people asking me questions like this one. Some of the major kills of that expansion featured warlocks prominently – remember Stars doing Yogg-0 and all those Drain Soul beams? – but Cataclysm had those kinds of moments, too. I remember several Demonology warlocks in the world first Heroic Rag video. DPS was never so lackluster that it couldn’t keep up. Warlocks weren’t getting benched for playing warlocks … they just became scarce.

At the same time, I went through my own problems playing my warlock main, Cynwise. At first I thought it was due to my dissatisfaction with the PvP endgame at the end of Season 9, but as the months ticked by and I made no effort to pick up a warlock, any warlock, I found myself wondering if it was really the endgame I didn’t enjoy in Cataclysm – or warlocks. I had become one of the missing warlocks, and I didn’t even really know why.

Was it me? Was it the class? I felt very uncomfortable extrapolating my own experience out to warlocks in general. The specific incident that knocked me off my warlock main was too personal, too isolated. It didn’t really have anything to do with warlocks at all – it had much more to do with the gear transition in endgame PvP, a lack of interest in raiding, and a desire to see more of the lower brackets.

Maybe it was just perception that there were fewer warlocks out there. Just because I’ve fallen out of love with a class doesn’t mean that the class is broken, right? People change. I changed. I learned to love healing and tanking, for crying out loud! What kind of a warlock likes to tank things that aren’t the floor?

The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I stopped playing a warlock when 4.2 was released. She went from my main to a neglected tailoring alt over the course of Cataclysm.

But the months ticked by, fewer people talked to me about the hexenfreude of playing a warlock, and more asked me what was wrong with the class. I had to wonder:

Was I the only one?

THE POPULARITY CONTEST

Are warlocks less popular now than they used to be? That’s the question we must start with – is the decline one of perception only, or is it based in fact?

Comparing WoW census figures from the end of Wrath (patch 3.3.5) and what is presumably the last patch of Cataclysm (4.3.2) indicate that the answer to this is definitively yes.

Warlocks are less popular now than they were at the end of Wrath.

This data is taken from two sources: Armory Data Mining (fortunately, not updated since 3.3.5) and World of Wargraphs. (Here’s the spreadsheet if you want to follow along.) Without knowing the methodology between these two censuses it’s difficult to assign a high certainty between comparing between different data sources, but these numbers appear to be consistent across other census sites. Let’s go with them as being at least relatively accurate.

  • Three classes experienced significant declines in their playerbase: Paladins, Death Knights, and Warlocks. All three of these had substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm.
  • Two classes had statistically significant increases: Mages and Hunters. Hunters received substantial changes to their mechanics in Cataclysm; this is somewhat counter evidence to the opinion that the change to Focus from Mana was bad for the class.
  • Three classes had small gains in popularity: Shamans, Druids, and Warriors.
  • Two classes stayed about the same: Priests and Rogues.

There are several key points I’d like to raise from this data set.

Paladins and Death Knights suffered a larger decline in popularity than Warlocks (2.1% and 1.9% respectively), but because their relative popularity (#1 and #2 in Wrath) was so much higher, the loss was less noticeable.

The Wrath numbers for Death Knights and Paladins may have also been inflated by the Legendary Effect, where more players were playing classes with a current tier legendary (Shadowmourne) available for them. What’s interesting is that we don’t see a corresponding rise in warlocks competing for their legendary, which is only one raiding teir past current (and still exceptionally good), while we do see a corresponding rise in the popularity of Rogues with their legendary in this tier.

Class popularity concentrated in a few classes in Wrath, with the outliers (Paladins, DKs) skewing high. There’s a nice little clump of 6 classes between 7.5% and 9.1%, Warriors are pretty close to even at 10.1%, and then there are the popular classes (Druid, DK, Paladin.) There isn’t an absence of Warlocks, Rogues, Hunters and Shaman in this distribution – rather, there’s a lot of people playing Paladins! Players notice that there was an abundance of a certain class, not an absence.

In Cataclysm, the popular classes became less popular and – overall – classes were more evenly distributed. There’s a nice clump of 4 classes at 10-11%, a clump of 2 at 9.3% and the popular classes (Paladins and Druids) at 12-13%. There’s less of a range between those 8 classes than in the previous model.

But notice that the outliers shifted from the high to the low end. Rogues are, relatively speaking, less popular compared to Hunters and Shamans than they used to be, even if their popularity hasn’t changed. Warlocks are even worse off – not only did they decline in popularity overall, they’ve declined relative to the standard set by other classes. No longer do you notice that there are Paladins everywhere; you notice the absence of Warlocks.

The salient feature of Wrath’s class popularity distribution was the abundance of Paladins and Death Knights; the salient feature of Cataclysm’s class distribution is the dearth of Warlocks.

It’s interesting that this is both a decline in fact and in perception.

UNDERPOWERED, OVERPOWERED, OUT OF POWER

So why are Warlocks in decline? Are they particularly bad at a particular area of the game? Is this a problem of balance, or power? Is this a case where warlocks are just plain underpowered? Are people making rational choices in raiding by shunning warlocks? Are they just bad in PvP? While I hadn’t heard of any of these problems, perhaps there was a rational reason to choose another class.

I first looked at DPS in heroic raids. While heroic raids don’t represent the entire universe of PvE, they’re a good place to start when looking at DPS. I took a quick look at Raidbot’s DPSbot and 25m H encounters:

Huh. Nothing in the last two months, really. Warlocks are solidly middle of the pack performers in hard mode raiding. Unlike some classes, their three specs are pretty well balanced between each other.

Maybe we need to look further back. Let’s expand our view for the last year.

Okay, now we’ve got a lot more data, with more diversity in the data set, so we can see trends over the expansion.

  • In 4.1, Affliction is one of the top DPS specs, sharing the lead with Shadow Priests and Arcane Mages. Balance Druids, MM Hunters, and Arms Warriors are also very strong. Demo and Destro are in the second tier of DPS.
  • In 4.2, Affliction is no longer top of the DPS, but still competitive. Demonology remains mid-tier, while Destruction drops like a rock to the bottom of the charts.
  • In 4.3, Affliction, Demonology, and Destruction are all mid-tier DPS performers. If you zoom in to various displays of the data on the linked site, Affliction is still the top Warlock performer, while Destruction has improved substantially.

So the picture that emerges of Warlock DPS is … it’s fine. I know that’s a judgement call, but realistically, it hasn’t been bad, and it’s even been pretty good at times. It hasn’t been so awesome that it’s an outlier (like Fire Mages an Shadow Priests), but at the same time, it hasn’t really struggled. It’s a solid performer.

What’s interesting is that all three specs have had a pretty good run of it in Cataclysm – more so than any other pure DPS class. Mages have tended to have one superior spec in PvE at any given time, either Arcane or Fire. Hunters have had wildly erratic performance in PvE, with Survival either great or terrible, but Marskmanship and Beast Mastery lagging behind. Rogues have also been forced into Combat or Assassination, mostly Combat. Except for a period in 4.2 with Destruction falling way behind, all three Warlock specs were viable for Cataclysm raiding.

That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? You’d think that having viable choices for your PvE spec would be a benefit, wouldn’t it?

Nothing in the DPS rankings says that the class needed to be buffed dramatically. While there are some superior choices at specific times, there were few classes that were consistently better. Shadow Priests, maybe? Mages weren’t until they got the Fire buffs of 4.3.

So maybe there’s something more going on here than just straight DPS problems. Let’s go back to popularity and see if that sheds any light on how warlocks have done in raids.

One of the great things about the World of Wargraphs site is that it allows you to drill down to a specific environment, and compare how a class/spec combo does there, versus its overall popularity. This is important, because it allows you to avoid bias. If you looked at population distribution and said: 15% of everyone who killed 8 HM bosses was a Druid, therefore druids are overpowered in HM PVE content, you’d be making an erroneous statement. You have to compare this to the overall population – if 30% of all players played Druids, but only 15% killed HM bosses, Druids might be underpowered. Or Druids might have a disadvantage in PvE. Or there might be another class which is simply better than Druids at their tasks.

Let’s take a real example of this. Here’s the current distribution of classes of all characters who have killed at 4+ heroic raid bosses this tier.

Class Distribution in Heroic Raids, 4.3.3 (From World of Wargraphs)

Looking at only this data, you might conclude that Paladins, Priests, and Druids are better at heroic raiding, and Death Knights, Hunters, and Warlocks are worse at it. But this would be incorrect. You might have more Priests raiding than Shaman simply because there are more Priests playing the game, not because Priests have some natural advantages in raids.

When we take the data and mash it up against the global popularity percentages, we get numbers like this:

Class Popularity in 4.3.3 - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

4.3.3 Class Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This allows us to see which classes tend to be brought to heroic raids a bit more than average (those with green Popularity Deltas) versus those who are not (those with red scores). Priests and Hunters make up about the same amount of the player base, but one gets brought to the heroic raids more often (Priests).

The remarkable thing about Warlocks? They appear to be properly represented in heroic raids. They’re appealing enough to bring at the same rate as the general lock population. No advantages, but no real disadvantages, either.

The hybrid nature of some classes might throw these numbers off, though. We’re not really being fair to hybrids by lumping them all together – you might have a great healing spec but an awful DPS spec, which would balance things out.

Okay! Let’s look at it by spec, then.

4.3.3 Class/Spec Distribution - 4+ Heroic Bosses Killed

This chart not only shows which specs are currently raiding hard modes successfully, but which ones are disproportionately good (or bad) at it. Survival Hunters make up only 3.1% of the WoW population, yet account for 7.5% of successful hard mode raiders. I think it’s safe to say that Survival is a good raiding spec. A Beast Mastery hunter, on the other hand, is scarce in hard mode raiding (only 0.3%), yet is 2.7% of the total population.

In this case, the results we see here match the results we saw looking at DPS. That’s good! This shows that for Hunters, at least, if you want to do Heroic Raids, you go for the one that produces the best DPS – which, right now, is Survival. I like it when data matches up like this, and we see it in other specs and classes, too. Fire Mage? Overrepresented. Frost Mage? Under.

Warlocks are a pretty small sample size, but we still see some parallels between the DPS scores and popularity. Each spec is equally represented, 2%-2.6%. Interestingly, Destruction is the most popular spec, and both it and Demonology are slightly more popular than their global populations. Affliction is less so. These don’t quite match the DPS figures that we saw earlier, but this might be because the current tier requires more burst, which both Destro and Demo deliver better than Affliction. The perception is that Destro was buffed and Affliction is weak right now. We find statements like the following boilerplate from the Elitist Jerks warlock guides:

With the release of Patch 4.3 the warlock class sees a number of changes, in particular the Destruction spec, along with a few changes to the Demonology spec. Following these changes we see that all 3 specs are quite close, and all have something to bring to the table. For single target DPS, the following should be true at all gear levels:

Demonology > Destruction >= Affliction

While Demonology does pull ahead in single target DPS by ~2k DPS, this is only in close to perfect conditions where there is minimal to no movement and the player is able to stand in melee range. This means that in most situations Destruction and Affliction will perform better than Demonology.

On multi-target fights with strictly 2 DPS targets Affliction and Destruction should be quite even. However once any additional targets are introduced Affliction will perform considerably better than Destruction. Heavy AoE fights are where Demonology really begins to shine, followed respectably by Affliction and then Destruction behind by a considerable margin.

As confusing as they are, I think these observations are pretty accurate. All three specs are quite close, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses is important when deciding which spec to play on which fight.

This leads to an interesting observation about specs. When there’s a clearly superior DPS spec for a class in raiding (e.g. Survival, Fire) players will flock to it. When two or three specs are raid viable, other considerations factor into the decision making process and muddy the water. We should not assume that having three viable raiding specs is better than only having one; Warlocks might have choices, but that isn’t drawing people to raid with the class more than, say, Survival Hunters or Shadow Priests. It may be more flexible, but it isn’t necessarily more appealing.

For Warlocks, there isn’t an easy choice of spec in raiding right now. Should you go Demo/Destro on Spine for burst, or stay Affliction? Do you have the gear to switch between Destro and Demo? Will you be multidotting, or just handling a few adds? Which spec is the player more skilled at playing?

Aside from having more spec choices than any other DPS class, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Warlocks in PvE raids.

Warlocks aren’t underpowered in heroic raids, but neither are they overpowered.

THE GREAT MYSTERY OF PVP AND RLS SYNERGY

If Warlocks are doing okay in PvE, perhaps poor performance in PvP is driving players away from the class.

I dunno. It could happen!

I toss this theory out because if you’ve leveled a Warlock lately in PvP, you know that battlegrounds can be tough on you. You have to have exceptionally good gear to succeed, and even then you’ll probably die a lot. I don’t think this theory holds at the endgame – warlocks have traditionally been pretty potent in PvP – but we should test it out.

The following graph presents all classes in all rated PvP environments  – Arenas, Rated Battlegrounds – with a rating of 2200+.

This is the first population chart where Warlocks are not on the bottom. Not only are they not at the bottom, Warlocks are disproportionately well represented in highly ranked PvP.

Class Distribution in 4.3.3 PvP (Season 11) - 2200+ Rating

There are classes which do better at rated PvP play than others, and Warlocks are on that list. If you look through the current 3v3 comp ratings, Warlocks are part of the dominant comp (RLS, Rogue Lock Shaman), and integral parts of most of the other comps.

3v3 Comp Popularity in Season 11 - 2200+ Ratings

The structure of 3v3 is usually straightforward: healer, controller, burst. Affliction Warlocks have the right tools to apply constant pressure on the healer, they’re hard to kill, they have great CC, and they can put out a lot of damage. What they can’t do is burst, which is why pairing them with a Rogue works so well. And Shaman healing works really well with Affliction PvP – Spirit Link totem is one of the keys to this synergy.

The PvP data on World of Wargraphs tells this story in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t matter what Arena size it is, there are a disproportionate number of ranked Warlocks in it.

  • 5v5 they are practically essential (Affliction is top spec, 12.7% of all players).
  • 3v3 they are dominant (#4, 8.5%).
  • 2v2 they’re respectable (#7, 6.1%).
  • Even rated battlegrounds, which I thought might have some falloff, sees 10.2% of all players as Warlocks – just behind Rogues.

That pretty much means every rated BG team is going to have a warlock – if they can find one.

The data tells a story about a class which is exceptionally good at ranked PvP, especially when working with several other players. They might be weak on their own, but they are very potent in a group. They are a damage support class, providing pressure everywhere. Other classes keep them alive or burn down the opponents; Afflocks provide the control and damage needed to create those openings.

Rogues are in a similar position; great PvP abilities, great PvE output, relatively low numbers. Both classes have received legendaries in Cataclysm, though Warlocks shared theirs with other caster DPS. Rogues are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Dragon Soul, with their legendaries providing both class interest and top DPS for a class which has deserved some love for some time.

Hunters are in the opposite position. Terrible in ranked PvP, a single PvE spec doing well in raids after struggling for much of the expansion, and a completely reworked resource system. But Hunter popularity is up, and Warlock popularity continue to slip.

There isn’t anything wrong with the Warlock numbers.  That’s what’s so frustrating about this problem. The class isn’t out of balance, it’s not pulling in low DPS, and it’s doing really well in PvP.

So why the hell are people not playing warlocks anymore?

WHEN YOU HAVE ELIMINATED THE IMPOSSIBLE

The preceding sections tried to establish facts of the case:

  • Are Warlocks in decline? Yes.
  • Do they have DPS issues in raids? No, they even have some advantages over other pure DPS classes. DPS looks okay.
  • Are there problems in rated PvP? No. They’re part of the most dominant comp this season. Locks are consistently represented with high rankings.

The two most obvious reasons players would not choose Warlocks at the endgame – that they have performance issues in PvE, PvP, or both – are just not there. Especially when we look at the expansion as the whole, the data simply doesn’t support the idea that Locks can’t hack it. They can. They can shine.

They just aren’t.

So we must look elsewhere for answers.

My first theory about the data we’ve looked at is that it is very focused on level 85 play – and the upper tier of endgame play at that – which is why it fails to explain the lack of Warlocks. Heroic raiding and 2200+ PvP are not the activities of the majority of the player base, but they are activities which receive a lot of scrutiny from both players and developers. This upper tier endgame bias allows us to focus on the potential maximums of each spec, as well as see how a class is performing in demanding conditions, but it doesn’t represent everyone at 85, let alone everyone in the game.

PvP is not balanced around any level other than 85, and arguably it is only balanced for rated PvP play at level 85. Several detrimental changes were made to regular battlegrounds during the course of Cataclysm to solve problems that only existed in rated play. Changes were made to classes based upon their performance in Arenas, not regular battlegrounds. The emphasis of Cataclysm was getting players into Rated Battlegrounds, which meant that they were the (flawed) yardstick by which all PvP was measured.

PvE is a different beast, but the fundamental assumption is that balance still happens at 85. I think that the different buff and nerf cycles experienced in Cataclysm support this. I can’t say that they’re not looking at performances in 5-man content or daily content, but we don’t see a lot of changes aimed at fixing balance in those activities. Raids are where the logs are. Raids drive the nerfs and buffs.

So this theory surmises that the problem with Warlocks is not visible in the endgame data because the data is looking at the wrong activities. It’s looking at the endgame. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the class at endgame – people rolled warlocks, but end up not playing them at the endgame.

There could be a few things going on here.

  1. Warlocks attempt to raid/PvP at endgame, but stop for some reason other than their performance. Possible reasons include class mechanics, better buffs from other classes, easier to gear other classes through raid content/5-mans.
  2. Warlocks get to 85, don’t attempt to raid at all, but enjoy other endgame content.
  3. Warlocks get to 85, but are not played in the endgame at all, and the player rerolls or quits.
  4. Warlocks never get to 85, and therefore never get to endgame content.

The population popularity comparison is about the only data that we have to go on for the first point, but it’s telling that Warlocks are fairly represented in heroic raids compared to the general population (6.7%). If you want to raid, you can, and you can do well. If you are a serious raider leveling to 85, you’re about as likely to raid on a Warlock as a different class.

Casual raiders, of course, might have a different story. Warlocks might do well if executed perfectly, but if their rotation has less margin for error, then there could be a problem between the upper tier or raiders and the masses at 85. So we can’t rule the first possibility out just yet.

The second possibility is that people level their locks to 85 and choose to not raid on them, but do other things. Hunters and DKs appear to be in this situation – they are underrepresented in their raid popularity compared to their overall population. Warlocks, as break even, don’t seem to be here.

Three and four are different but would look the same to most of the data we have, just because the data appears to measure active 85s. We need to look at different data – in this case, realm population data across all levels, not just endgame data.

We have to find out if people are even bothering to level warlocks.

RISING THROUGH THE LEVELS

I was talking about this post with Narci from Flavor Text, and she was kind enough (thanks, Narci!) to cull the following data on class populations in different level ranges from Warcraft Realms:

Class population percentages, by leveling bracket, in 4.3.3

Let’s look at these graphed out, too.

Active Character Level Distribution by Class in 4.3.3

The Warlock line is there below everyone else. It doesn’t start there, but once it crosses the Shaman line around level 20 it never really recovers.

The introduction of Death Knights at 55 causes a population depression in all the other classes because, without warning, over a quarter of the player base is playing a DK at level 55-60. So we should ignore that anomaly, throw out the 50-69 data, and keep it in mind for the the 70-80 data. It skews comparisons for all the other classes, too, because there are only 9 classes represented at 1-10, and 10 at 85. Mages might be 11% at 1 and 11% at 85, but that’s actually an increase in popularity because of the larger number of classes at 85.

Look at Paladins! They start off behind a lot of other classes, but the loyalty shown at 85 is remarkable! There’s a 2% gain of total population share between 84 and 85, which means that people level them to 85 and play them there. Paladins like playing at the endgame. It looks like Druids – and Shaman – do this as well.

Hunters are almost the complete opposite – heavily loaded at the low levels, with a constant decline all the way up. Hunters are excellent leveling toons, and are extremely strong at low level PvP. As they get older they get more complex and less dominant, driving people to put down the class for a while.

It’s really amazing how popular Hunters are at the character selection screen. I wonder if this is because of the new races available to them? Does adding a class to a popular race increase its popularity? It’s something we have to consider when talking about class changes – Hunters got Humans and Forsaken, Warlocks got Dwarves and Trolls.

I like Dwarves, but very few people actually play them.

There are 3228 Dwarf Warlocks and 3867 Troll Warlocks on US and Euro servers versus 34,366 Human and 10,783 Forsaken Hunters (data from Warcraft Realms again).  Even if those numbers aren’t absolutely correct, they’re relatively correct. Hunters benefited more from their new races than Warlocks.

Unlike most classes, Warlocks decline as they level. There’s a slight decline from 80-84 to 85, which might represent people leveling to endgame and then dropping the character, but it’s not huge. They decline a bit (3%) through the leveling process, but that’s nothing like what happens to Rogues (5%). I think you have a stronger case for saying people have started a lot of Rogues but not gotten them to endgame than you do with Warlocks – 3% could be just noise in the system from the DK bump, plus, there’s the Rogue Legendary Carrot – but there is still something going on there. The trajectory is never one of growth, unlike Paladins.

I think if I had to break apart this data, I’d summarize it as follows:

  • Hunters and Death Knights are initially very attractive at character creation and for early leveling, but are normally represented at endgame. Death Knights are probably skewed because of farming/banking toons.
  • Rolling a Rogue is extremely popular right now, likely due to the Legendary Effect, but leveling them to endgame is a challenge.
  • Warriors and Warlocks are somewhat more popular at character creation than at endgame. There may be leveling problems with these classes.
  • Priests, Shaman, Mages, and Druids all increase their popularity  from 1 to 85. The relatively consistent numbers (or slight increases) are subject to the DK effect, making 11% at 85 mean more than 11% at level 10.
  • Paladins dramatically increase in popularity at endgame. They may not be the easiest class to level to 85, but once there, people play them.

Warlocks aren’t a popular choice at creation. I think it’s safe to say that – they’re not Hunters or Death Knights or Druids. But they are also not complete pariahs – people are choosing Warlocks at about the same rate as Priests and Shaman.

I had a theory that one of the reasons Rogues and Warlocks aren’t popular classes is because they’re the “bad guys” of the character creation screen. Both classes have evil flavor and feel to them – Warlocks perhaps even moreso than Rogues. Warlocks aren’t paragons of virtue, defenders of nature, or even very heroic – at best they’re ruthlessly efficient, at worst they’re evil incarnate.

But the data doesn’t really support that. People do choose to try out Warlocks, just not a lot of them – and even fewer make it all the way to the 85 with them.

Update: There is a followup post to the data in this section, Leveling Data on Warlocks is Worse than I Thought, based on Jason’s comment on this post. I was wrong about some of the data this preceeding section – I was overly optimistic and conservative in my interpretation of the leveling data on Warlocks, and should have been more open about how bad the situation is. Looking at the data in a different way revealed a different situation.

Thanks to Jason for his comment and guidance in building this data model.

THAT WHICH REMAINS, NO MATTER HOW IMPROBABLE

Where have the Warlocks gone?

I started this post with some ideas in my head about what caused the decline between Wrath and Cataclysm, and why Warlocks are just not getting played. The problems with the class’s unpopularity in Wrath were only exacerbated by Cataclysm. 

Fewer players are playing Warlocks. People who are noticing that there aren’t as many Warlocks in game are absolutely correct. It’s not that there is something wrong with their performance at the endgame – both PvE and PvP performance is adequate at the high end – but something is driving players away.

Leveling data suggests that the character concept is not the problem. People are rolling them, albeit not as many as other classes. Something happens between rolling the character and getting them into endgame content which causes the class to fall into disfavor. It may be questing, it may be dungeons, it may be battlegrounds. It may be class mechanics.

But something happens.

Here’s the conclusion I was hoping to avoid: people simply don’t like playing warlocks. It’s not that they don’t try them; they do.

Players simply stop playing them.

Some of them, no doubt, give up on Warcraft entirely. There’s plenty of evidence that that has happened. But it’s also likely that they look at other classes and switch. It’s likely that players are migrating to the classes which they find to be the most fun.

And they aren’t finding Warlocks fun enough to stick with them.

Next week, I’ll dig into why this is happening to Warlocks, and what Blizzard is doing to address the problem.

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Item Level Squishing in PvP

Ghostcrawler recently wrote an interesting blog post about the problem of item level inflation over the course of expansions. It’s a post that hit close to my heart, not only due tothe copious graphs, but also because it addresses some fairly significant problems in PvP – problems which, frankly, don’t exist in PvE.

Item levels have risen over the course of Warcraft’s development to convey a sense of increased power and character growth. Because the stats on the gear rose, damage rose – but so did the health pools of the monsters for that expansion. And, due to the diminishing effects of combat statistics, characters didn’t get any more effective as they leveled up, but instead became less effective as they entered a new expansion until they returned to their previous peak. This creates a strange illusion of getting more powerful in relation to older content, while actually becoming less effective in several key areas.

When you level from one expansion to another, each statistic becomes less effective in order to yield the same result. For example, when you level from 70 to 74, the same gear becomes about 25% less effective for certain key stats like Haste and Resilience. Even when you don’t move between expansions this is true – a level 10 character with 90% Haste will have 22% Haste at level 14 in the same gear – but between expansions it’s especially dramatic.

Expansions are the big culprit with power expansion in Warcraft, as each new expansion comes out with bigger stats, bigger damage and health pool numbers, and an increasingly huge disparity between the new and the old.

This chart from Ghostcrawler’s post helps show the stat inflation. It’s a good way to focus the discussion on the impending stat inflation which lies ahead in Mists of Pandaria if they don’t make any changes. If we carry forward his projections, the next line on the chart is going to go straight up and hit item level 600 in 5 short levels.

Put it another way – we could be looking at tanks with 500k… 750k… 1 million health… by the end of the next expansion. In PvP, we’re probably looking at around 400k to 500k health pools, and damage to match.

Let that sink in.

Ghostcrawler walks through two proposed solutions to this inflation:

  • Mega Damage: keep the scale the same, but represent the numbers with (effectively) scientific notation.
  • The Great Item Level Squish: adjust the game so item levels are flatter, except at the very end of the current expansion.

Both of these have some interesting pros and cons.

Mega Damage doesn’t change the underlying structure of the game, but rather presents it differently to players. Much like boss health is now represented by millions, the UI would be adjusted to present big numbers in a smarter fashion. This is relatively easier to implement, which means more developer resources spent on making new content (which is a good thing.) But it also fails to address the past and present issues introduced by item inflation, as well as ignoring the future computational issues when we’re dealing with really huge numbers for the smallest actions.

The Great Item Level Squish is a more involved solution; by reducing the item levels of gear through the leveling process, the entire game can then be retuned so that there’s a flat, streamlined progression through the game up until max level, when endgame gear inflates a bit, like so:

The Squish is a much more involved solution than Mega Damage, and the implications of it for PvP are really interesting. Really interesting.

Let’s take a look.

EXPANSION-FUELED POWER INFLATION AND LEVELING PVP

There are two serious challenges facing leveling PvP today brought about by expansion power inflation.I’m not just talking about low-level PvP, which has its own issues, but the entire curve of leveling PvP, going through from one bracket to another, starting at 10 and ending at 85.

  • First, the power inflation between expansions creates zones where it’s possible to gain the benefits of the next expansion without being in it – all the enchantments, profession perks, consumables, and early expac leveling gear can be gotten at levels lower than their target balance, which serves to destabilize the brackets leading up to an expansion.
  • Second, when a steep power inflation curve is compressed into a single bracket, it indicates a substantial gear disparity between the high and low ends of that bracket. The 80-84 bracket is a good example of this, with dramatically higher health pools at 84. We can presume, if nothing is changed, that the 85-89 bracket will suffer from a similar problem when Mists is released.

The first point has several elements to consider – gear, professions, enchants, consumables – but there are some common threads between each element.

It’s a fundamental axiom in twinking that the earlier you can get an item, the more overpowering it will be as you use it. This seems so obvious you might think it doesn’t bear repeating, but in the context of the Great Item Level Squish it deserves to be looked at critically.

Let’s look at a common example, a level 19 character who tries to get gear intended for a level 30 character.

  • Because the gear is intended for a higher level character, it has higher stats and therefore grants more of a benefit to the level 19 character than gear intended for that level. It’s simply a better sword, helm, belt, whatever it is, than what toons should get at that level. Let’s call this gear statistic improvement.
  • Because the combat rating system diminishes over time, lower level characters get more benefit from the same stats than higher level characters. This is counterintuitive, but the level 19 toon is more effective with the level 30 gear than a comparable level 30 character.

These two points are going to hold no matter where you are in an expansion or between expansions – the earlier you get good gear, the better it will be.

But the steeper the curve of the graph, the greater the inequality. The greater the difference between your level’s average item level and the higher level items you can acquire, the greater the advantage you can gain over your fellow players. And the places of the steepest curves and greatest inequality?

That’s right. In between expansions.

Each expansion introduces leveling gear a little before the endgame of the previous expansion, so at level 58 you can start wearing Outland gear, 68 Northrend gear, 78 Cataclysm gear. (I assume Pandaren gear will be available at 84, when it arrives.) This means that, in the x5-x9 brackets, the top of the bracket has two kinds of gear to choose from – the old and the new – and the new gear scale is usually significantly better than the old one, leaving characters at the bottom of the bracket at a significant disadvantage.

This isn’t really news; if you’ve played the 75-79 bracket lately, you’ve seen the devastating effects Cataclysm green gear has on bracket balance.

Let’s turn this idea around and put it another way: the shallower the slope of the graph, the less impact gear has upon your performance in PvP. Gear from 5-10 levels ahead will be a little bit better than what your average opponent will have, but not as much as it is now. Conversely, gear from 5-10 levels behind won’t be as much of a hinderance as it is now.

If gear becomes more equal in PvP, then class abilities, player skill, and teamwork rise in importance.

While this means twinks become less overpowering, it also means that leveling PvP becomes a bit less of a gear game, and a bit more of a battleground game, and I am very much in favor of that.

THE THORNY PROBLEM OF ENCHANTMENTS, PROFESSIONS, AND CONSUMABLES

While lowering the item levels of gear would help make leveling PvP a fairer, smoother experience, the real benefit comes when we apply the Squish to the real unbalancing elements of PvP – enchantments, profession perks, and consumables.

The above chart shows a rough availability of enchantments and profession perks by level, superimposed over Ghostcrawler’s item level chart. When you really start looking at when things become available, a surprising pattern emerges:

  • Vanilla enchants are available at level 1, but are geared for level 60.
  • Vanilla profession items are available starting at level 10 to grant items designed for level 30 or so.
  • Vanilla first aid can be learned at level 10 to use items geared for level 60.
  • BC enchants become usable in the late 20s and early 30s, but are intended for level 70.
  • BC profession perks are available at level 35, and fully realized at level 50, but balanced for level 70.
  • Wrath enchants are available around level 55, but are geared for level 80.
  • Wrath gems are available around 62-63, but are geared for level 80.
  • Wrath profession perks are available starting at 50 and fully realized by 65, scaled for level 80.
  • Cataclysm enchants and gems are available at level 78, but geared for 85.
  • Cataclysm profession perks are available starting at 65, fully realized by 75, and scaled for 85.

This mess is how twinking works – find the imbalance in the system and ride it for all it’s worth. It’s why you see Tazik’s Shockers and Synapse Springs in level 65 battlegrounds, why Green Tinted Goggles were so good in 10-19s, why Crusader and +25 Agility and +22 Intellect enchants are so overpowered at level 10-14.

The key to the problem lies in a steep item level curve.

Enchants, gems, and professions allow you to gain abilities and bonuses balanced for substantially higher levels – usually the endgame of the respective expansion. The flatter the item level curve, the less impact these abilities have on lower levels. The problem isn’t making them available at early levels – it’s a lot of fun pursuing these little advantages – but rather just how big some of the advantages are. Cataclysm-level damage in the middle of Burning Crusade? Enchants suitable for Molten Core and AQ-40 in level 10 Warsong Gulch? Mongoose at level 29?

This is only a problem if the item level curve is steep. If you bring down the level of each expansion’s endgame, and stop the power inflation between expansions, then abilities, enhancements and consumables geared for those parts of the game become less disruptive when brought down to lower levels. They still remain perks for smart leveling, but not overwhelming PvP advantages.

If you flatten the curve, these all become less disruptive to lower level PvP, and leveling PvP becomes more fair.

THE ENDGAME

The Great Item Level Squish doesn’t affect the endgame that much in terms of gameplay, though it has profound psychological effects. Going from 150k health to 15k would feel… weird. Disruptive. Like something had been taken away, even though the gameplay remains the same. Having Shadow Bolt crit for 20k one expansion and 1200 the next is tough to swallow if you like the big numbers.

I’m a number chaser too: I like big crits and I cannot lie. (You other brothers can’t deny.) I enjoy setting a target DPS for a character and eventually getting it. I like hitting a target health pool on a twink. And I like those numbers to be BIG!

But I look at the Squish and go… this solves so many problems in leveling PvP, I’m pretty sure I could get over that quickly. After a few weeks, the new scale of things would seem natural. Instead of going up in Mists, I went down, but that’s okay, because everything else went down too. I’m still superpowered compared to most of Azeroth – just with smaller numbers.

I don’t like the Mega Damage concept. I’ve played with similar concepts before in RPGs, and they just don’t work well. Having two different damage systems complicates things and solves nothing – except for the psychological need to have numbers that make sense, while still remaining “big.”

If Blizzard is going to spend time working on solving this problem – and I really, really hope they do – I hope they go with the more comprehensive Great Item Level Squish and flatten the gear curve.

Squish that curve as flat as you can, and the leveling PvP brackets will thank you.

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Blizzcon 2011: PvP Changes in Mists of Pandaria

In the course of Blizzcon 2011, Blizzard announced several changes to the PvP system, as well as planned additions to the Battleground and Arena system. It is worth noting that none of this is set in stone; Blizzcon announcements are more akin to ideas presented at a product planning meeting than actual release notes. I’ll try to keep the speculation to a minimum.

NEW BATTLEGROUNDS AND ARENA

Three new battlegrounds and one new Arena map were announced as potential additions to the PvP system.

The following are the proposed BGs:

  • Stranglethorn Diamond Mines: “Payload” gameplay
  • Valley of Power: “Murderball” gameplay
  • Azshara Crater: DOTA-style gameplay

And a new Arena map:

  • The Tol’vir Proving Grounds will utilize the sweeping vistas of Uldum and the Tol’vir art style with a simple layout based on Nagrand Arena.

Some of the terms describing the battlegrounds might be unfamiliar to you – I know they were to me, because I’ve never played Warcraft III.

  • Payload games are generally when the teams are split into offense and defense, with a moving objective – the payload – that needs to be protected. Generally, there are multiple checkpoints that need to be captured, and the teams are competing to move the payload along to the final checkpoint. One team will protect the payload as long as they can, then the other.
  • Murderball games (and there are several kinds) involve trying to get a ball or flag over the key or goal line of the opposing team. In some variations it’s anything goes; in others there are rules about who “anything goes” applies to. It looks like this one will have a ball that you carry that scores points, but also does damage.
  • DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) is a popular custom scenario for Warcraft III, where players control powerful units (heroes) to destroy the Ancients in the middle of their opponent’s bases.

For screenshots from the presentation, let me direct you over to the Hunstman’s Lodge. They have some nice screenshots from the livestream.

I wouldn’t count on all of these making it in to the final release of Mists, or of making them in with their current forms, but it’s nice to see some really interesting new ideas out there. While I like that Twin Peaks and Battle For Gilneas are variations on two very good existing battlegrounds, it would be nice to see something new.

Of course, vehicle combat was new, but it didn’t make for more compelling games. I’m interested to see how the DOTA game, in particular, shapes up – will players control avatars that give roughly equal abilities, removing class and gear inequalities? Some people would love that (skill > balance!), others would hate it (I didn’t level a Demolisher 85 levels.)

We’ll have to wait and see.

As far as the new Arena map? It’s about time. Getting the Ring of Valor back during this expansion wasn’t exactly an improvement. There was a great lack of anything Cataclysm-themed in Arena. Getting a Cata map an expansion later isn’t great, but it’s a sign that Blizzard is showing some attention to Arenas again and could indicate a Pandaren-styled map later in the expansion.

WORLD PVP ZONE

From the Q&A:

You did not mention a world PvP zone for MoP, maybe that could be the World PvP area for MoP?
The war between the Horde and Alliance will really heat up in Pandaria every patch, so we are looking forward to integrating that.

Cataclysm had a certain amount of “the war heats up” feel to it in the Blizzcon previews too, but World PvP took a hit on most realms. The biggest success for World PvP wasn’t the zone designed for it – Tol Barad – but rather Firelands on a PvP server. That’s where the real PvP has been happening, not in the island of musical chairs.

So it’s interesting when Blizzard doesn’t announce a featured world PvP zone after two expansions with a PvP zone as the PvP centerpiece of the expansion.

I think it’s incorrect to say that the idea of a world PvP zone is a failure just because Mists doesn’t have one at this time.

What I do think this implies is that world PvP zones are expensive to create, and that Tol Barad consumed far more development resources than it saw playtime.

I have in the back of my head that there’s a KPI Blizzard uses to evaluate the success of a development effort – player time over development cost. The idea is that something that is cheap/easy to implement and draws medium interest is better than something that costs 50% of your development resources but draws in the same interest. The ratio of player participation to development effort would seem to be a key success metric in any subscription model-based business that wanted to optimize development priorities.

And that’s what I think happened here. Wintergrasp was ambitious and brought in the players, but incurred major costs down the road when it couldn’t scale. Tol Barad cost too much to build relative to the number of players playing it, so Blizzard is going to try something else.

The other problem I see about prioritizing World PvP zones like Wintergrasp and Tol Barad is that they are effectively throwaway code with a limited lifespan. Unlike regular BG development, where you develop a map which will see use through future expansions, World PvP zones have a lifespan limited to their expansion. Halaa is deserted. Wintergrasp is deserted. Tol Barad will become deserted.

All that development effort for naught.

I don’t blame Blizzard for axing the idea of a World PvP zone. Tol Barad cut short development on both Twin Peaks and Battle for Gilneas – dramatically on BfG, as they had to scrap their original plans for a battle within the city and reskin Arathi Basin to get something shipped in time for Cata’s launch. Having development resources focused on Battlegrounds and Arenas is actually a good thing.

ACCOUNT-WIDE ACHIEVEMENTS

  • Achievements will now become available at the Battle.net account level. Many achievements will be shared among characters, including those for raiding and maxing out professions.

If you’re working on Battlemaster, you might have cried a little bit upon hearing this. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has tough achievements on alts, but not on my main.

There are a lot of questions to be answered about how this is going to work; if your total number of victories will count for Veteran achievements, if your meta-achievements will include the prerequisites on multiple characters.

But it’s a step in the right direction.

RESILIENCE AS A BASE STATISTIC

Big, major changes ahead for PvP gearing. Resilience will become a base statistic.

  • Devs like the way Resilience works in PvP, and how it gives a nice goal for players looking to progress/upgrade their gear in PvP
  • Resilience is a pretty huge barrier for people who want to start PvPing.
  • Resilience will become a base stat, and will increase a little every time you level.

I think it’s honestly easier to tell you what we don’t know about this change than what we do know right now.

Making Resilience a base statistic is a neat twist to the Valor and Vengeance system used by Rift – it allows the PvE and PvP systems to have effectively different damage systems regardless of the gear worn by players. That’s pretty neat! If damage gets out of control in PvP, they can either add more Resilience, or change how it scales so everyone takes a bit less.

The problem is that we don’t know how PvP gear will look in Mists. Will players still progress from about 25-30% damage reduction to 45-50% over the course of the expansion? What will the baseline reduction be with no PvP gear? Will there even be any more PvP gear?

I hesitate to even say that this is a good solution to the problems of low level PvP, because I don’t know how the scaling is going to work. Right now, Resilience has a flat application (10.74 points per % reduction) until level 35, when it starts to increase on a curve to hit a degree of normalcy at level 70. If this scale remains the same, then low level characters will start off with weak damage reduction that increases as they level. Unfortunately, burst damage is highest in the lower levels, and damage reduction is more necessary at 10-25 than it is at 50-80. So maybe they’ll start off with a good chunk of Resilience to help with lowbie PvP, or the scale will be changed…

… we just don’t know enough to say how it’s going to help certain areas of the game. It has the potential to be a good improvement to PvP at all levels, but we have to wait and see.

That said, I am cautiously optimistic that this is going to be a very good change, both for leveling PvP and endgame PvP.

NEW RACE: PANDAREN

Pandaren racial abilities are:

  • Racial – Epicurean – Increase the stat benefits from food by 100%
  • Racial – Gourmand – Cooking skill increased by 15.
  • Racial – Inner Peace – Your rested experience bonus lasts twice as long.
  • Racial – Bouncy – You take 50% less falling damage.
  • Racial – Quaking Palm – You touch a secret pressure point on an enemy target, putting it to sleep for 3 sec.

Okay, food, ok, more food, ok, XP, no biggie, bouncy, ok, nothing here to see for PvP…

… wait, was that a 3 second CC/interrupt I just saw?

… off the DR of many, many other CCs in the game?

/jawdrop

(Keep an eye on this racial and consider it a viable option for many classes.)

NEW CLASS: MONK

Wears leather, tanks, heals, melee DPS, has cool moves… it looks great!

I saw earlier today in one of the panels (and I’ve lost the reference now, sorry) that Monk healers will have non-targeted heals and need to be in melee combat to heal. That’s potentially very useful in PvP, particularly Arena combat. We may see a lot of Monk comps in Season 12 based solely upon this mechanic.

I expect Monks will be very potent in the early stages of Mists PvP, and that you would not be amiss in trying one out. If the Death Knights were any indication, it will take an expansion to really get them balanced out.

If Pandas aren’t your thing, all races can be Monks except for Goblins and Worgen.

LOOKING AHEAD

The situation for PvP is going to change a lot between now and the release of Mists of Pandaria. While many of the changes announced this weekend are exciting, there’s a lack of a single, defining PvP centerpiece for this expansion. Instead of Arenas (Burning Crusade), Wintergrasp (Wrath of the Lich King), or Rated Battlegrounds (Cataclysm), the focus is on an “increased conflict between the Alliance and the Horde.” We don’t know yet if that means World PvP is going to make a comeback.

We shall have to see what this diffused focus means for Warcraft PvP.

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The Persistent Problem of PvP Rating Exploits

Velidra sent me the link to the above video of a Destruction Warlock tearing apart battlegrounds with his bare hands. The guy takes on 3 Rogues at once and walks away the sole survivor. If I walk away from an encounter with a single Rogue, I usually count myself lucky. Three of them at once? Game over, man. Game over.

But not for Adouken.

I enjoy PvP videos. They usually make me feel bad about my own UI (how do they do that with so few addons?) but they make me feel great about the potential of my class, and I try to learn from them as best I can.

Videos naturally show a skewed version of a player’s skill, but that’s doesn’t mean that players who show off their skills in them are somehow faking it. They might not be that good all the time, but damn if they weren’t that good at some point, when the cameras were rolling. Odds are pretty high that they are that good, and that they operate at a high level of play all the time.

I don’t play anywhere near as well as you see Adouken play in that video – far from it. Watch that first segment and realize that he’s casting Nether Ward inbetween the time a spell is cast at him and the time it reaches him. You notice how it looks like he reflects Death Coils back at their caster? He’s casting his own Death Coil while his opponent’s spell is in the air. That’s awesome.

There is an objective difference in skill between Adouken’s player and me. While it may not be easy, surely, we can measure it somehow, right?

That’s where PvP ratings are supposed to come in and help us know the great from the good, the poor from the mediocre. They way they work is simple, at least in concept.

  • There are two numbers used in the rating system: Matchmaking Rating (also called MMR) and your PvP Rating. You have different values for each bracket.
  • Your Matchmaking Rating changes with every win and loss, and is used by the system to try to find a level of skill where you’ll win about 50% of the time. You can think of the MMR as measuring your aptitude, your potential rating.
  • Your PvP Rating is based upon your performance over time, changes slowly, and is what PvP achievements, gear rewards, and titles are based upon. PvP Rating, in theory, measures your performance over time.

The goal of the PvP rating system is to match you up with people of equal ability, not to allow you to win all the time.

That’s kinda weird, isn’t it? From a sport perspective, it would be really strange to have a system that wasn’t based on win/loss records (performance). But you also have different leagues and ways of stratifying talent that don’t exist in computer games – local, regional, and national competitions, playoffs, major, minor, and little leagues. So instead, the goal is to put a number on you and say, this is an arbitrary level you’re performing at.

All other things being equal, you should win about 50% of your matches against teams and people of similar PvP rank.

But that’s not how it works.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE MISSING MMRS

So a funny thing happened in the 4.2 Patch notes.

  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Arena scoreboard.
  • The individual Matchmaking Rating column has been removed from the Rated Battleground scoreboard and replaced with a team Matchmaking Rating.

This is kind of curious, isn’t it? What’s going on here?

I’ve said several times that Blizzard is trying to encourage people to get into Rated Battlegrounds in patch 4.2, and that many of the changes are with this in mind. You might think that a change like this is just to make it so that people who join rBGs don’t see how outmatched they are and throwing the match immediately.

While this makes a limited amount of sense, it’s not what’s going on. Yes, this is to try to make Rated Battlegrounds more fair, and therefore more attractive. But hiding the personal MMR is aimed at stopping a series of exploits people are using to get titles in both Arena and Rated Battlegrounds, exploits which are running rampant right now. The most common exploit involves using alts to boost the main characters’s MMR, then winning enough games at the various high levels to get the desired titles.

If you’ve been comfortably playing in a lower Arena bracket, you may have noticed that the last 2 weeks have been rather… more painful than before.

You’re not imagining things.

THE PROBLEM WITH MMR, OR WHY THAT TEAM JUST STOMPED US

[Player]: How about a joke before you go?
[GM]: Your Arena rating.
[Player]: /facepalm

Consider the following facts about how MMR works.

  • Your team MMR (different from your rating, mind you) is equal to the average individual MMR of all the players on the team.
  • In the event of a win, individual MMR should go up, thereby raising the team MMR. Losses reduce MMR, but not as much as wins do.
  • Players on new teams start out with 1500 MMR.

Let’s look at how this works out.

You start the season out with your two friends and start playing 3v3 on your mains. You win some, you lose some, but your individual MMR rises and falls together. If your MMR hits 1800, your teammates are also at 1800. Your MMR, and eventually your PvP rating, accurately reflect your team’s performance to date. Everything is rosy.

Now let’s say one of you has an alt you want to bring in. Maybe it’s because it’s a better comp, maybe it’s just time for a change. Now you’ve got two people at 1800 MMR and one person at 1500 MMR, so your team has a MMR of 1700. You’re facing teams which are a little worse than you were doing before, but maybe the alt is undergeared, so it balances out.

What’s interesting is that it might balance out to fair matches in the 1700-1800 bracket, your individual MMRs are now going to be out of sync. The alt will always have a lower MMR than the other two main characters, and can never catch up.

Now let’s take a step back and change the conditions a little bit. You have a 3v3 team, starts fresh at 1500 and goes to 1800. Two of you drop your mains and swap to alts. Your team’s MMR is now 1600. You’re facing easier teams than you did at the 1800 bracket, so you win, even though the alts might be a little undergeared. They gain +200 MMR, you gain +200 MMR, you’re now at 2000 MMR, they’re at 1700 MMR – and your team is back at 1800 MMR.

With me so far? You’re still playing at 1800 MMR teams, but your personal MMR is 2000, your team’s alts are at 1700.

Now, you swap to to one of your alts, and one of your teammates swaps to their mains. 1500 alt, 1700 alt, and 1800 main are now on a 1666 team. You play until your teammate’s main is at 2000. (You’d be at 1700, the second alt would be at 1900.)

You see where this is going, right?

By cycling through alts, teams are able to artificially boost the individual MMR of their main characters.

Now let’s take this a step further. The team cycles through once or twice, everyone’s mains are sitting around 2000 MMR. The alts are all around 1800, which is really where people’s skills are at.

So the team hops on their alts and loses every single match. Their MMR tanks. They go from an 1800 MMR team to a 500 MMR team in a night. Those characters have terrible MMR now, which is exactly what they want.

Because now, you have a crop of alts at 500 MMR to swap into a team with a 2000 MMR main. The team’s matchmaking rating is 1000, so they’re going to be facing significantly easier opponents. But they’re capable of playing at 1800 MMR, so they dominate. The main’s MMR shoots up to 3000+ while the alts are climbing back up to 1800.

And then once everyone’s mains have an MMR of 4000+, they all rejoin the team and play enough matches to bring their team rating – and therefore their PvP rating, which gives the Gladiator titles – up to the desired level. Yes, their MMR will fall from the heights it reached, but the PvP Rating will rise to meet it somewhere in the middle.

When that team comes and stomps your 1000-rated group you and your friends put together to screw around on with perfect CC chains, huge burst damage and flawless target switching… they should never have been playing you in the first place.

BUT WAIT, RATED BATTLEGROUNDS ARE EVEN WORSE

You know why MMR boosting is an even bigger problem in Rated Battlegrounds? It’s not because they’re BGs, and it’s not because I am trying to pick a fight with rBGs this week.

No, it’s because:

  1. There are 10 people on your team, and
  2. Rewards are based on your individual MMR, not your team MMR.

Nice, huh?

Swapping alts (or even players who don’t care) in and out of BGs can be done like in Arenas, but it’s a little easier to boost MMR due to the number of low rated alts you can bring to the team. If you have 2 players at 1800 and 8 players at 1000, your team will be at 1160 MMR and (hopefully) get matched accordingly.

The coordination required to alt swap and lose MMRs is harder to do with 10 people than with 3. There’s a lot more time involved with Rated Battlegrounds, and the effort put forth by a low-rated character is often the same (or more) than a high-rated one, but the high rated one will get rewarded disproportionately to their efforts. While there is some alt-swapping going on, it’s not as easy as some other methods of boosting your MMR.

No, the best thing to do is to work with a strong group until you’re all up to a decent level – say 1800-2000 – and then PuG like crazy. Get into the worst groups you can find who still have a chance of winning, and play with them. This has the same effect as the alt-swapping MMR boost – when you win, you win big, when you lose, you don’t lose that much – with none of the headaches of having to swap alts yourself. You can go from PuG to PuG, increasing your MMR with each win. You may not win as consistently as you do with your set group, but you will get a great rating, which in turn gives you access to the PvP titles. You don’t even have to win any matches at your new MMR to get the titles, because nothing is based on your team’s MMR or rating – just your individual rating.

Remember back when you thought people’s rating really measured their skill?

/AFK FTW

At some point above, you probably wondered how people can preserve their ratings while losing.

Well, if you leave a match before it finishes, it doesn’t count. This is how win-trading works – people queue in off-hours, trying to get specific teams to match up against, and leave the match if it’s not them. When people leave the match as soon as things start going a little wrong? They’re leaving to preserve their MMR, which gets modified at the end of the match.

You didn’t think people were /afking because they were scared of you, right? :-)

WIN TRADING

Another reason why people /afk out of an Arena (or Rated Battlegrounds, though I think this is less common) match is because they’re trying to trade wins with another team.

This often happens late at night, when there aren’t a lot of teams playing in the different brackets, and it’s been a problem since Arenas started, but obviously if you can find a team who will throw the match for you, it’s a great way to get your PvP Rating to match your possibly inflated MMR.

I don’t have a lot to say about win trading. Don’t think it doesn’t happen, because it does.

WHY BLIZZARD IS HIDING INDIVIDUAL MMRS

Given that there are two different types of MMR inflation going on in both types of Rated PvP, you can start to see why Blizzard is trying to hide that value. It’s not going to prevent the problem from happening, especially not in Rated Battlegrounds, but it can reduce the precision with which people are doing it now. There will be more guesswork when exploiting, both in boosting and tanking individual MMRs.

There’s a concept in security circles called “Security through Obscurity,” which is a way of describing any security system that relies upon something being hidden for it to be secure. It’s usually treated as a bad thing, because once something is found that relies on it, it’s completely insecure. In cryptography, if your sophisticated code algorithm uses a single seed to generate codes, once the seed is known your code is useless. In piracy, if you bury your gold but don’t put a lock on it, anyone who finds the gold can take it.

In other words, security through obscurity is generally not very secure.

There’s a temptation to say that hiding the MMRs is just that – not making the system any less susceptible to exploitation, just hiding the problem. People can still do the things they’re doing now. You are going to face teams who are boosting themselves, who have great gear and skilled players but are playing with an MMR well below their real skill, and you won’t be able to tell anymore.

But, removing the data points does make it more difficult on the exploiters. Not a lot – not like a complete revamp of the MMR system would – but a bit. It’s a relatively simple change in terms of development time which will have some impact. That’s why it’s happening now.

I don’t really like this change, but I see that Blizzard has to do something.

Will teams still be able to boost their MMR into the stratosphere? You bet. As far as I can see, as long as the three conditions I laid out about the MMR system hold true, boosting is possible. You can’t have flexible teams and not have this kind of potential abuse. Will it be harder for other players to find out who is boosting? Yes, it will.

It’s not great. But it’s a start.

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

Man is the measure of all things.

-Protagoras

The interesting thing about the PvP Rating system, at least the Platonic ideal of the PvP rating system, is that it provides a way to compare people with very different character types. No matter what you play, or what your team is like, it should provide a relative measure against other players. The values are arbitrary and entirely dependent upon the actions of other players, as well as your own.

I think about other rating systems that assign a numeric value to your ability – college aptitude tests like the SAT/ACT, IQ tests, even professional placement exams – and they all measure ability based upon fixed criteria. Here is a test, there are right and wrong answers, how did you do? (Please note, I am an old fart, and I still think of the SAT as having all multiple-choice questions, none of this fancy writing stuff.)

Both types of test assign numeric values, which of course makes them more scientific.

But more than that, both purport to measure aptitude, but one is easy to game for your advantage, while the other is not. Why is that?

Take a look at the exploits again. Each one of them involves using other people. The system isn’t the problem, the people are. The system relies upon measuring you and your teammates, and your performance against other teams, which provides two places where it can be exploited.

Your opponents can really only modify your rating through throwing a match and win-trading, which is one kind of problem. You and your teammates can modify it through careful manipulation, boosting some characters, tanking the ratings of others, and preserving gains through /afking.

If these ratings were static and based upon some kind of objective performance, this kind of exploitation would not be possible. You can’t cheat an aptitude test by trying to throw off the bell curve and flooding the test pool with people who are going to score 0. You can’t get a 1600 on the SATs by being better than everyone else in your testing pool – you have to get every question right.

There are objective measurements of player skill, even in an environment soaked in relativity like PvP. Go back to the video at the top of the page. The player’s reaction time is faster than many others. They choose the right spells and abilities to succeed. They position themselves well, they use their abilities in the correct order. There is a measurable difference between that kind of play and my own, and that means we could construct a static test to measure it.

But static tests are hard. They have to be randomized, administered sparingly, maintained and updated. I don’t know how it would capture performance in the field fairly. I have only the vaguest ideas how a static PvP test would work. Perhaps like kata in martial arts, where mastery of a ritualized set of moves – perhaps a scripted PvP encounter for each class – is required to move to the next level?

That doesn’t feel much like PvP to me. PvP requires other players, living, breathing, thinking teammates and opponents.

And yet, as soon as we bring other people into our measure, we open the door for manipulating that rating.

SKILL > RATING

PvP Rating is not equal to skill. As much as we would like to have a system that really represents skill, the PvP Rating system is not it.

The more I look at how the PvP Rating system is being manipulated, the less I respect it. There are a lot of highly skilled players with high ratings, where ability and performance are in sync. But there are plenty of other teams that are taking shortcuts, who are going for the quickest way to their desired goal. They’ll stomp through the lower brackets while boosting a friend’s toon. The only incentives that aren’t about gaining the coveted rating are designed to get people into Rated Battlegrounds – everything else is about getting your numbers up.

Players who deliberately game the rating system sadly affect other players. A 2500 player playing in the 1250 range artificially depresses the ratings of people who would naturally be in the lower brackets. The upper brackets, in turn, get filled with people who have artificially inflated their ratings, giving the people who actually perform at that level easy opponents, inflating their ratings in turn.

The more players who game the system, the more imbalanced the brackets get.

And none of this is a reason to not play Arenas or Rated Battlegrounds.

  • Arenas remains the best place to learn how to win fights in PvP, period. (The only other activity that even comes close is dueling, which is really 1:1 Arena.) Yes, it’s a death match. Yes, there are strict limits about what you can and can’t use. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. Try to win them anyway. Learn from your losses.
  • Rated Battlegrounds delivered on their promise – they let you play BGs with the team composition you want against really good opponents. You have to win the individual fights, you have to execute a strategy, you have to do it against an organized opponent. Yes, you’re going to have unbalanced matches. So what? Get stronger.

As long as PvP Ratings are a relative measure, players will work together to game the system and artificially inflate their ratings. The exploits I’ve discussed are just some of the ways that players are trying to get around the system.

Is this cheating? Yep, you better believe it. Creative use of game mechanics, my foot.

But while it unbalances PvP, it’s not a reason to abandon Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds.

Skill is not equal to rating. Skill can’t be gamed, it can only be acquired through work and talent.

Screw your PvP Rating. Focus on improving your skill instead.

If you do that, all the exploits in the world won’t matter one bit.

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Disguising Sticks as Carrots: the 6/16 Conquest Point Cap Update

The 4.2 Patch notes have been updated last night (6/16) with a dramatic shift from punishment to reward regarding the Conquest Point cap changes of 4.2.

The entire set of patch notes are below, with my comments following. Updated information is in red.

  • The minimum cap on Conquest Points earned per week from Arenas is now 1500 1350 at 1500 or less Battleground Arena rating. The maximum cap remains is now 3000 2700 at 3000 or more Battleground Arena rating. The cap continues to scale non-linearly between those two points. For comparison, during season 9 the cap ranged between 1343 and 3000.
  • The game now separately tracks different Conquest Point caps for Battlegrounds and Arenas. The cap for Arena rating will always be 2/3 of the cap for Rated Battleground rating at any given Arena rating. Battleground ratings receive a bonus of 22.2% to the cap they generate, meaning the cap from Battleground rating now ranges between 1650 and 3300. Players may earn a total number of Conquest Points per week equal to the higher of these two caps, but once players have reached the cap for either Arenas or Battlegrounds, they can no longer earn Conquest Points from that source. Conquest Points from Battleground holidays only count toward the total Conquest Point cap.
    • Example: During the first week of Season 10 everyone starts with a rating below 1500. Therefore, the cap from Rated Battlegrounds will be 1500 1650 and the cap from Arena rating will be 1000 1350. In the first week, the character wins enough Arena matches to reach the 1000 1350 point cap. After that point, Arena wins will no longer grant Conquest points for the week. However, the character can still earn up to 500 300 additional points, but can only earn those points from either Rated Battlegrounds, or from the Conquest Point bonus for holiday and/or daily random Battlegrounds. The following week the cap will be recalculated based on the character’s ratings, and it is possible Arena rating could now generate the higher cap. The second week, the character’s cap from Arena rating is 1600 1800, and the cap from Rated Battlegrounds is 1500 1650. The character has a total cap of 1600 1800 Conquest points for the week. Up to 1500 1650 points can be earned from Rated Battlegrounds, but the last 100 150 must come from a different source.

The situation remains essentially the same, with sticks replaced by carrots. The ratio is slightly different, the math is more complicated, but the design goals are identical to last week’s version.

Players are being encouraged to go to Rated Battlegrounds, and it has nothing to do with slowing down the rate of acquisition of gear.

Take a look at the changes.

  • The gap between Arena and RBG caps has been reduced from 33.3% to 22.2% across the board.
    • The gap for the lowest-rated players is now 300 Conquest Points, down from 500.
    • The gap for the highest-rated players is now 600 Conquest Points, down from 1000 points.
  • The Arena cap for high rated players has been increased 700 points.
  • Instead of phrasing the change as a penalty to the Arena cap, the change is now phrased as a bonus to the Rated Battleground Cap.

High-ranked Arena players now continue with a majority of their play in Arena matches, but will need to do some Rated Battlegrounds, Zulroics, or raids to get their remaining 600 Conquest Points.

Since there haven’t been any changes to the Arena Conquest Point per hour rate on the PTR, low-ranked Arena players are now able to gain gear at the exact same rate that they got it in 4.1. Unless the prices for Ruthless Gladiator’s Gear go up, there is no change to the absolute rate of acquisition.

If this was PvE, then this would all be a moot point. Gear increases are relative to a static encounter difficulty, so you can make the argument that you can choose to do, or not do, Rated Battlegrounds, based on the desires of your raid group.

But this is PvP. The encounter difficulty of PvP is entirely relative to other players. Players who play Rated Battlegrounds, even who play them poorly, will gear up faster than players who do not. 

Rated Battlegrounds are not giving out more Conquest Points relative to their current version. Rated Battlegrounds are not being made a more attractive investment of one’s time – but they are being made into a requirement to stay competitive.

The only substantial change in this update is psychological. The stick has been replaced with a carrot, but there’s still a stick there. Cutaia pointed out this morning that this kind of change worked well before with Rested XP – changing the model from “Tired = XP Penalty” to “Rested = XP Bonus” made it vastly more attractive to players. That the time spent leveling didn’t change wasn’t important – giving players a bonus instead of a penalty changed their behavior. Rested XP is a bonus!

But it’s also the speed at which you were expected to level with originally. Whoops.

Ignore the hands, people!

The challenges of moving players away from Arenas into Rated Battlegrounds are substantial. It’s hard getting 10 people together when you’re used to only getting 2-5. It’s hard when rBGs don’t have enough players to offer newbies a fighting chance. It’s hard when the coding has been broken, when the maps aren’t tuned well, when you need a very specific comp to be successful. It’s hard.

I appreciate that Blizzard is at least looking at the way in which this change is presented. I really do. It didn’t go down well when it was announced, Blizzard is obviously trying their best to fix the the queue problems in Rated Battlegrounds, and they have to do something.

But no matter how these changes to the Conquest Point changes get spun, their purpose remains the same:

Get players into Rated Battlegrounds at any cost.

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