Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Care and Feeding of Baby Warlocks

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

I’m struck by how limited the publicly available census data is, especially around leveling characters. It tells us things like: Hunters are hugely popular to roll and start leveling, but they decline in relative popularity well before the endgame. Priests, Paladins and Shamans seem better suited towards leveling all the way to 85. Warlocks struggle and get less popular as they level.

But it doesn’t tell us things like: Warlocks have a problem at level 25 in the leveling process.

That kind of data should exist, privately. I assume that Blizzard has attrition data that would let you see account-level details like: at what point people stop spending more than 25/50/75% of their play time on a given character? At what point people quit? Which character they were playing prior to their quit? What are the demographics of common play patterns, and are there certain patterns which players adopt before they quit?

Account-level data is the holy grail for Warcraft analysts. I would do bad things to get my hands on that data and dump it into Adobe Insight. I’m not going to lie; I would do bad things.

I’ve already talked at length about Warlocks the endgame, so let’s turn to the lower levels – to the leveling game. It’s easy to overlook this part of World of Warcraft once you’ve begun raiding, but it’s a large part of a game, and more importantly – it’s a large contributor to the health of a class. A good leveling experience can bring players into the class and keep them in it; a poor flow can drive them out, either to a different class or out of the game entirely.

Why do we stall out on leveling a class? Is it the class, or the game? It’s hard to say with current data, and analyzing our own motivation is hard. Why can’t I bring myself to log in to my level 43 resto Shaman, or pick up my level 60 Rogue? I don’t know. I really don’t, beyond vague statements of “boring” and “no clue how to play this class anymore.” Much like setting aside an endgame character, stalling out on a leveling character is probably best understood in the aggregate, in looking at trends – yet we don’t have a lot of trends to look at.

So we’re going to have to speculate a little bit.

I struggled to level a Warlock in Cataclysm. Intrigued by the introduction of specializations at level 10, I rolled a trio of them at the beginning of the expansion, and then failed to level any of them past 15 or so. I rerolled one later on and got her up to 25 or so, but the whole process feels flawed, inelegant.

Leveling is an important part of the World of Warcraft. Leveling teaches players how to play a class as they learn to play the game. It’s supposed to give people a flavor of what the class plays like at endgame while introducing abilities in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the player. As new abilities are added each expansion, players need to learn and assimilate them.

An obvious side effect of increased complexity at the endgame is that the leveling process has more work to do. There’s more stuff to teach in about the same amount of time – the number of abilities goes up, but the amount of time it takes to get to endgame is kept the same (or even decreased.) This observation isn’t just for Warlocks; it’s for all classes. It can be difficult to learn your class when abilities come too quickly to process and internalize.

Based on the previous entries in this series, I think it’s a pretty easy leap to relate endgame complexity to leveling complexity. Not so much that leveling as an activity becomes increasingly difficult, but learning to play a class becomes a bigger job. There’s more material to cover. Players may take breaks to consolidate their knowledge by locking experience – a practice I heartily endorse – or they may be able to proceed to the endgame without issue. It really depends on the player and the class.

That point is pretty straightforward, so instead of dwelling on it for another thousand words let’s move on to something new.

THE PROBLEM OF SPECIALIZATION

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Cataclysm introduced a fairly radical change to the way in which characters could level: specializations at level 10. Players were asked to choose a specialization right out of the starting area, with the implication that they are focusing on one specific aspect of a character class.

This change had several components:

  • Granted a new, signature ability of the spec
  • Gave a bonus to the core thematic abilities of the spec
  • Allowed characters to begin assigning talent points in that talent tree
  • Restricted characters from assigning talent points in other talent trees until 31 points had been spent in the primary tree.

Choosing a spec at level 10 seems to be a great idea when we look at what leveling is supposed to accomplish. It gives people a sense of the spec early on, both with playstyle and flavor. It focuses player attention on specific talents and abilities. It should provide guidance on how to gear, on how to group with others, on how to PvP. And it gives people cool toys early on in the game.

There are other benefits which we never really saw implemented in Cataclysm. In theory, the random dungeon finder could restrict queues to only hose who have talented into that role, though dual specs makes that a bit of a challenge. Queueing is not a simple problem to solve.

Specializations at level 10 are a learning tool. I think there’s a real benefit here of guiding players into learning specific roles early on, especially for hybrid classes that can tank or heal. Practice in the forgiving leveling environment helps get players ready for the harder challenges of endgame.

Even more than teaching, though, I think specialization at level 10 lets you play what you want, as soon as you want. It’s a different expression of the Bring the Player, Not the Class philosophy – not about balance, but rather about offering players choices in how they play. If you wanted to play a Fury Warrior because the idea of someone with two axes appealed to you, now you could do it right out of the starting area and continue it all the way up to endgame.

This should be contrasted with the way leveling was handled before Cataclysm, where each class generally had a spec (or two) considered best for leveling, with the other specs filling other roles. For Warlocks, Wrath leveling went something like:

  • Affliction through level 40.
  • Around level 40 Demonology became viable with the Felguard.
  • Around level 69-70 Destruction became viable with Chaos Bolt.

It’s not that players couldn’t start off and level as Destruction, it’s that it it was really clunky compared to Affliction until around level 70. Players could level as Affliction all the way to 80, but if they didn’t want to play an Affliction warlock they still had to get through 40 levels before they could switch to Demonology and get their Felguard. Destruction, frankly, didn’t even work until 64 because of a lack of nukes (Chaos Bolt and Incinerate in the mid-60s) and the wonky mechanics of Conflagrate, which needed a Glyph to be practical for the spec. (It consumed Immolate on the target without a glyph.)

Cataclysm changed this. Every spec became, in theory, a viable leveling spec. You picked your spec at level 10 and went with it.

  • Affliction got Unstable Affliction, making it a three DoT leveling spec.
  • Demonology got a separate pet with the Felguard.
  • Destruction got a CD nuke in Conflagrate (revised so no Glyph was needed).

In theory, this meant that you would have three different styles of leveling (dot, pet, nuke) that taught the basics of each spec, giving them a flavor of what was in store for them.

The theory isn’t bad. It’s really not! While I like the idea that you level as a class instead of a spec (Mage not a Frost Mage, etc.), that isn’t always practical, and it’s okay to make a choice early on and stick with it all the way through.

The problem, at least with Warlocks, came from the inelegant implementation. Flaws like:

  • Spending talents to buff abilities you wouldn’t get for 40-50 levels
  • Weak, situational abilities granted early on without obvious use, while core abilities are unavailable
  • New resource system with no real use until higher levels
  • Abilities outside of specialization being necessary part of leveling

… all contributed to making Warlocks feel clunky, hard to level, off-putting.

Much of this has been cleaned up in the Mists beta, but I think it’s worth noting that these problems were present during Cataclsym. It’s important to acknowledge the problem and recognize if it’s been fixed. The impact is hard to quantify, but that doesn’t mean it was negligible.

WASTED TALENTS

Talents got an overhaul in Cataclysm, but they still worked in a tree structure – some talents you have to take to make the spec work, others are kinda optional. There’s a larger discussion to be had about talents, but for leveling talents form a series of choices – what should I take now that makes the most sense?

You could argue that there are several ways in which this model fails – if new players don’t take an obvious talent, they might get penalized – but the way I saw it fail most for Warlocks was in one of two ways.

  • Talents affect abilities you don’t have yet.
  • Talents affect abilities you shouldn’t use.

The confluence of abilities getting handed out at certain levels and talents opening up at certain levels makes the first one difficult to talk about without specific context.

For example, at level 10 an Affliction Warlock only knows Corruption and Unstable Affliction for DoTs; they don’t learn Bane of Agony until level 12. Yet, the first tier of Affliction talents gives you a chance to buff three spells: BoA, Life Tap, or Corruption. The right choice (and yes, there is a right choice) is to buff Corruption first through level 13, then buff BoA at level 15 and 17.

An experienced player can look at the choices and go, you know, those levels will go pretty quickly, take Improved Corruption and move on. But I don’t think that’s obvious to a new player. Wait, Bane of Agony, what is a Bane, I get one at level 12 and one at level 20, so should I take this now or not? It’s a false choice, a point of confusion that – while navigable – is inelegant. It’s clunky. Yes, it’s only a two-level gap. But it’s still clunky.

Affliction’s first tier isn’t even really the best example of this kind of wasted talent. Destruction’s talent tree is full of places where you are buffing spells you won’t have for some time to come. Improved Soul Fire used to be a tier 2 talent, resulting in situations in the 20s and 30s where your only option was picking talents to buff spells you would not get for 20-40 levels. Emberstorm in the second tier makes sense in tier 2 because Demonology needs it at endgame, but it is completely wasted because Soul Fire wasn’t learned until level 48 and Incinerate at 64!

Leveling players notice every time a talent buffs a spell or pet ability that isn’t available. They try to make sense of the trees and do the right thing, but sometimes there is no right thing to do. Sometimes, the lack of an ability will cause someone to pass over a critical talent for the spec. Emberstorm is mandatory for Destruction, even if it did nothing before Soul Fire was lowered to level 20. Molten Core is mandatory for endgame Demonology, but it’s available at level 37 but has absolutely no effect until level 63. Jinx is available at level 19, but Curse of the Elements is learned at level 53.

These kinds of mistakes are frustrating. It’s solved by leveling and respecing, of course, but we shouldn’t ignore the inelegance of it all. I think the talents which drive players to use the wrong spells are actually a little bit worse, to be honest, because they betray a key goal of the leveling process – teach the player how the spec plays at endgame.

Should Destruction Warlocks be casting Shadow Bolt? Their specialization perk improves Fire damage, but most of their early talents also buff Shadow Bolt. For a long time, your choice of nuke was either Shadow Bolt or Searing Pain until the 40s. You can buff Searing Pain while leveling, but even buffed, it’s not that great of a spell. (I tried to make a crit-heavy Searing Pain leveling build, it sucked.)

Shadow Bolt is a fantastic spell early on. It scales well, it gets buffed by most of the early talents – and once Incinerate is available, Destro Warlocks shouldn’t use it ever again.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

My personal preference leveling Destro has been to ignore Immolate/Conflag – too slow – and just spam Shadow Bolt (with occasional Soul Fires thrown in) for good measure. I know that that’s personal preference, and that I could Immo/Conflag, but I don’t like the long CD and it honestly feels faster just to spam Shadow Bolts at everything. (They hit like a truck.)

But how is this teaching me how the spec will play later on? How does this capture the flavor of the spec as fire-crazed pyromaniacs?

Affliction, as the former preferred leveling spec, has fewer of these problems than the other two. Sure, you never hardcast Shadow Bolt because it’s untalented until level 71, but Drain Life is … was… a sufficient filler spell. It’s thematically appropriate and the MOAR DOTS theory embraced by the leveling tree is the correct one.

The promise of the specializations at level 10 in Cataclysm was that it would let you level how you liked. The reality was that it exposed many flaws in certain specs’s talent trees and ability distribution, which in turn were the original reason why those specs weren’t used to level with in the first place! This isn’t a Warlock-only problem – I hit problem spots on other leveling toons – but it seems to have hit Warlocks more seriously than many.

SOUL SHARDS

Soul Shards were completely revamped in Cataclysm and were … well, they freed up a bag space, which was awesome, but otherwise they were a bit of a disappointment. They had some specific uses at the endgame, but as you level the abilities are less than thrilling. Instant summon a demon: how many times does your demon die while leveling? Improved healthstones, yay? Searing Pain, even at 100% crit, tends to do less damage than Shadow Bolts cast during the same period of time. (I wanted to like Searing Pain filler, really I did.)

Pretty much it’s good for fast Drain Life and instant Soul Fires while leveling, and only once Soul Fire was brought down to level 20.

The CD on the shards is long (30 seconds), they take 9 seconds out of combat to regenerate, and they just don’t do a lot. They save you 2 seconds every 30 at the cost of 9 seconds later on, which is a net loss of 3 seconds every minute and a half.

Think about that. Sure, it’s nice to be able to cast a Soul Fire on the run, but why would you do this as part of a leveling rhythm? Soul Shards add complexity without a lot of return, but they do so inelegantly. Did you really need them at level 10?

Say you’re leveling Destro, which should be able to make good use of instant Soul Fires. But you probably have Shadow and Flame, so you try to open with Shadow Bolt whenever possible. Okay, so you stop moving to cast Shadow Bolt, then follow it up with a soul burned Soul Fire. BAM! POW! That mob is probably dead.

Now wait for another 30 seconds before you can do that again.

See, even the 10 second CD on Conflag is irritating if you’re trying to use it all the time – effectively limiting you to 1 mob pull every 10 seconds, which is actually kinda slow. The 30 second CD is understandable in the context of the endgame, but while leveling?

It’s an emergency button you’ll hit every so often.

I admit, I was more disappointed by the Soul Shard revamp on my low level Warlocks than on my 85. It wasn’t so bad at endgame, but when leveling I realized that it was … clunky. Inelegant.

Oh well. At least I got a bag slot back.

CORE ABILITIES

Quick! Which spells should all Warlocks use in Cataclysm, regardless of specialization?

  • Corruption
  • Bane of Doom
  • Shadowflame
  • Immolate/Unstable Affliction
  • Demon Soul

One theory I have for why all three Warlock specs are relatively equal in raid DPS is because they share so many of the same spells. Everyone should be running with 3-4 DoTs, a Curse, and one of 4 nukes. Few abilities are unique to a single spec; there is a lot of cross-pollination of strong abilities, with some modifiers in application and execution.

While this common base of abilities presents some issues at the endgame, it also presents issues for leveling Warlocks in that there’s no clear delineation for what abilities should be used, or not used, according to their spec. In many ways spec doesn’t matter. You should use Corruption, and Bane, Immo/UA, and Shadow Bolts until the mid-sixties. Each spec gets one or two signature additions – Haunt, Hand of Gul’dan, Conflagrate, and Chaos Bolt – but your toolkit is going to have some Affliction and some Destruction, no matter what. You can level by sending in your demon and hitting random DoTs if you really want to.

I think this is a shame. Specs should have a unique feel to them. They should have a core set of abilities which define them and make them feel different. The shared toolkit of Warlocks works against them here, as does the general complexity of each spec at endgame; while leveling there just isn’t a firm direction one way or another. You can dot, you can nuke, it will pretty much all work out for you in the end.

The core abilities need to be better defined to give a sense of flavor and distinction to each class. Some shared abilities are okay – they signify that you’re playing a Warlock – but too many, and you lose the feeling that your spec choice mattered at all.

BATTLEGROUNDS AND DUNGEONS

The distribution of Warlock abilities rendered them pretty weak in leveling battlegrounds. They were never really all that strong, but with the high burst in lower brackets, coupled by fewer escapes than many other classes, contributed to leveling frustrations with Warlocks.

Fully in the realm of anecdote now, the twink brackets I played in (19s, 24s, 70s) all considered Warlocks and Warriors to be their weakest classes. Not unplayably weak – a really skilled Warlock (or Warrior, for that matter) is a wonder to behold – but they do best with a healer behind them to compensate for their lack of escapes and solid defenses.

What I’ve seen in PvP is mostly a problem of ability distribution in any given bracket. Some classes receive powerful PvP tools right at the start (Hunters, Rogues, Mages) and others do not (Warriors, who instead are the best tanks at low levels). Warlocks gain some key PvP spells very late in the leveling process – Shadowflame, Fel Flame, Demonic Circle, Demon Soul.

Similarly, Warlocks have always seemed to struggle in leveling five mans because of their slow rampup time and poor ability synergy at early levels. This trend seemed to get worse in Cataclysm, with each spec relying on DoTs for the majority of their DPS, which results in low DPS if you can’t ramp quickly. But to be honest, I don’t know if there was really a decline in Warlock leveling 5-man performance in Cataclysm. I really don’t. I rarely saw Warlocks while leveling other characters, and when I did they didn’t have notably good or bad DPS.

The one thing I noticed while tanking or healing was just how few Warlocks that were leveling.

I think that, in leveling PvP, Warlocks fared a bit worse in Cataclysm compared to other classes. Some classes started off strong but faded as the levels piled on (Hunters), others started strong and finished strong (Rogues, Mages). Warlocks seemed weaker at all levels in comparison. I think that many of the changes which were made to balance the class at level 85 in rated PvP play had negative effects in the leveling bracket. I know that leveling PvP has never been balanced, and was not intended to be balanced, yet I think that this had a negative effect on the leveling population. For a PvP class to not be very good at PvP while leveling is kind of … odd.

That said, the flip side of it is that generally, Warlocks who leveled via PvP became excellent at it, thus perpetuating a class of players who excelled at Warlock PvP at endgame, hiding a multitude of class flaws.

THE PROBLEM OF INELEGANCE

All of these small, clunky things add up while leveling. All of the little errors of logic, of false talent choices, of no clear guidance for players, they contribute to making a class not just complicated, but also inelegant. And that inelegance matters when you’re trying to convince a player to take up a class.

Leveling is a sales job. It’s training players how to play a class, sure, but it’s also there to sell them on it, to convince them that this is the class for you, my friend. A good leveling experience draws in players and bolsters the ranks of a class. Leveling a class isn’t hard; convincing someone they want to level it is.

The promise of specialization at level 10 is the promise of leveling the way you want to play at the endgame, of training players to use the abilities they were going to need later on. I think Cataclysm didn’t do a very good job of that for Warlocks. The two specs which became viable leveling specs both suffered from learning abilities and talents at the wrong time, and in some cases essential, core abilities were absent for much of the leveling process.

The Soul Shard revamp also failed to deliver on its promise to bring something new and exciting to the class, which in turn led to abilities being learned early on with limited utility and questionable time savings.

Unlike previous posts in this series, I don’t have numbers to stand by with these assertions. I can point to flaws in the class design and say, it doesn’t make much sense to give players talents which buff abilities they don’t have yet – but I can’t quantify that impact. It doesn’t make much sense to give people a specialization but not give them the core tools of it. None of this could have helped players choosing to level a Warlock in Cataclysm.

There is some good news here. I’ve taken a look at the changes coming to Warlock leveling in the Beta of Mists of Pandaria, and many – most – of these problems have been addressed. Leveling a Warlock looks to be a lot smoother, a lot more fun.

But these problems didn’t help Warlock popularity in Cataclysm.

Next up in the series is Cataclysm Changes and the Loss of the Warlock’s Soul, where I’ll be looking at how the changes affected the theme of the class, and then we can finally look ahead to Mists of Pandaria.

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Making School of Hard Knocks Work for You: PvP Achievement Synergy

 

So here’s the situation: hordes of non-PvPers are going to be swarming the BGs next week trying for the School of Hard Knocks achievement. Their presence gives you the chance to work ok a lot of other battleground achievements. Helping both sides out can have unique benefits, as behavior in the BGs is going to be radically different during Children’s Week.

HELP THEM, HELP YOURSELF

Here are some examples of how helping people get the SoHK achievement can work towards your own PvP achievement hunt.

Warsong Gulch

The normal nice thing to do is to have one person go to the other flag room, see the opposing team dancing in there with their orphans out, pick up the flag and drop it, allowing everyone to return flags. (Returning a flag is when you click on a loose flag, sending it back to the flag room.)

If you are an experienced PvPer, you want to encourage this kind of behavior, because you can hang out and work on:

You also provide real defense to PvE players if the other team comes roaring in with no intention of playing nice.

Arathi Basin

Trading a node back and forth between sides can be beneficial for both parties. If you hang out by a blank node, dancing with your orphan out, you can hopefully signal the other team that you’re there to help them by defending the flag – allowing them to assault it over and over again.

Being the defender contributes to:

Tagging along with the orphan crowd contributes to:

The trick there is that you have to find someone willing to trade the node with you, which seems less common than in WSG.

Alterac Valley

Much like Arathi Basin, not everyone notices that you might be a friendly defender, willing to recap the tower and give the opposing team a turn. But if you find a group who won’t kill you on sight, you can work on:

I’ve found this one difficult in the past because not everyone realizes that a lone defender might be there to assist and then leave. But it’s worth a shot.

Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm is perhaps the toughest BG to help other players with. If you’re experienced with running the flag, you can take it from mid and run it for SoHK people, but you don’t get anything from doing so. You have to either cap the flag or kill the flag carrier to contribute to any achievements.

Your best bet to play nice is to watch and see if someone is trying to grief their own side – someone who takes the flag and hides away with it, refusing to cap, that sort of thing. (Refusing to cap is normally a legitimate tactic, but it’s a dick move during Children’s Week if you control mid.)

Take out the griefer and you work towards:

Note that you don’t have to return the flag – just kill the FC and it counts.

It’s your call whether to go after the opposing team’s FC for this achievement. Personally, I think you should, but if you’re feeling really nice you can let them go … while capping 4 nodes and working on Eye of the Storm Domination.

WINNING AT ALL COSTS

I think there’s a strong argument to be made for helping other players is more beneficial to chasing achievements this week than sticking to the rules of each BG. But if you insist on playing to win, you can still work on some achievements. Winning games is a good one – show people how to play the BG once the achievement hounds are finished. There are a few (like Stormtrooper) which can be done to help your team win.

The key to surviving Children’s Week is to keep a long-term perspective on your goals. Sure, you can get frustrated by all the under-geared achievement seekers.

But you can also look at this as an opportunity to make some headway on your own achievements.

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Children’s Week 2012 and the School of Hard Knocks

A quick break from talking about Warlocks for a bit.

Children’s Week 2012 starts this Sunday, and with it will come everyone’s favorite holiday PvP achievement – The School of Hard Knocks.

And by favorite, I mean “most polarizing, hated achievement in the history of Warcraft achievements.”

Here’s the thing. No matter how much you’re dreading it because you don’t do PvP, you can do this achievement. Really, you can!

If you’re new to battlegrounds and dreading this achievement, check out my Guide to the School of Hard Knocks from 2010 – it’s still accurate, even with some changes to the Warsong Gulch graveyard, and it’s easier to mount in Alterac Valley (you can do it right out of the gates.) It has maps and video walkthroughs for each step of the achievement (hah, early Cyn videos!). The keys are practice and perseverance – you can do this! Get in some practice runs today and tomorrow to get used to the maps, then don’t give up in front of your orphan!

If you’re a battleground veteran, may I point you to two other articles – A Modest Proposal and A Vicious Proposal - that address the problem of this achievement in our playground. Be a good host. This week is the opportunity to infect a lot of people with the Battleground PvP bug – let’s not squander it.

One suggestion for experienced PvPers that isn’t in the above posts is to get an orphan and run with them, even if you have the achievement already. If there are folks in your BG who like picking on non-PvPers, you might as well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. :D

Good luck next week! YOU CAN DO IT!

(And don’t forget, ALWAYS have your orphan out.)

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Appendix B: The Problem of Evil

I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the responses on the Decline and Fall of Warlocks in Cataclysm series. There are a lot of questions and points raised which modify my original outline to the point where it the topics need to adjust to suit. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” and all that.

As such, I have found myself writing posts which I think are related to the main thesis, but where the data doesn’t strongly support the central theme. Or, like in the following piece, I think the data is far more interesting for analyzing other classes than it is for Warlocks. I had hoped that analyzing the initial lack of appeal for Warlocks would yield some new insight into the class, but ultimately there are limitations on the publicly available data which outright prevent it.

This is a data-heavy post, which is pretty much the only reason I’m releasing it into the wild. All of the charts can be found in the 4.3.3 class distribution spreadsheet. If nothing else, this will hopefully prove a solid snapshot of class popularity at the end of an expansion.

APPENDIX B: THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

One common theory I’ve heard about the scarcity of Warlocks is that it’s because they’re the evil class of Warcraft. They personify the ends justifying the means. They rationalize using the tools of the Burning Legion against everyone, without worrying that perhaps this really isn’t a very good idea.

There are NO noble or virtuous Warlocks in lore, and Warlock characters aren’t portrayed as good or nice in the World of Warcraft. At best, no one trusts them, and at worst, they’re feared and reviled – and rightfully so! They consort with demons for fun and profit. They take delight in pain and torment. They are corruptors of the highest order.

And yet, they can also be the saviors of Azeroth.

Reconciling these two positions can, frankly, require some mental gymnastics.

Anti-heroes are a tough sell in a fantasy setting. Yes, there’s some appeal for those who don’t want to play a noble paragon or protector of the natural order, but it’s a limited appeal. A class based on the worst villains of WoW isn’t going to feed into people’s desire to be a hero.

I think there’s something to this idea that Warlocks are naturally an unpopular class at the character selection screen because they’re the bad guys. Even Rogues – the other anti-hero class – are a bit easier to recast in a heroic light. Sure, they’re ruthless and efficient, but you can picture them as secret government operatives, swashbuckling pirates, street urchins turned heroes. The noble Rogue is part of fantasy archetypes like The Gray Mouser or Bilbo Baggins; it’s part and parcel of the AD&D-inspired syncretic fantasy legacy Warcraft is heir to.

Warlocks are either necromancers, crazy conjurers, or wizards who crossed the line with the Dark Arts. They have their own place in a fantasy setting, but not as heroes. So it’s difficult, at character creation, to see how this character would appeal to a broad base of players.

The central questions of the previous posts in this series were concerned with the decline of the Warlock class over the course of Cataclysm. The revocation of the Simplicity Tax and additional complexity beyond the magic number introduced in Cataclysm created a situation of inelegant complexity without reward, which in turn led to a decline in Warlock popularity. These are based upon the significant changes to the class during this expansion.

The reason which I haven’t considered that the class’s character unduly affected it in Cataclysm is because I didn’t see any real change in the portrayal of the class to account for its decline. In other words – Warlocks didn’t get any worse in Cataclysm’s story. Warlocks still don’t have any sympathetic characters in Warcraft lore. All major Warlocks characters are unrepentant villains (Ner’zhul, Gul’dan) or they reform and renounce their fel ways (Drek’thar). None of this changed in Cataclysm.

That said, while I don’t think that the idea of the class caused the Warlock to decline, I absolutely agree that it doesn’t help its case to become popular.

Sadly, the data we have publicly available is limited and doesn’t let us look at things like: out of every character rolled, how many people choose a Warlock? How much time do players spend considering the class on the creation screen versus other classes?

The majority of the data we’ve considered so far has focused upon the Warlock class at endgame, level 85. It’s tempting to use popularity data from the leveling brackets (c.f. the second post in this series) to try to prove this point that players don’t choose Warlocks at the creation screen. Looking at the leveling graph again:

The important data point is in the 10-19 bracket, where players have gotten over the level 10 hurdle and are showing enough interest in the game to commit to more than an hour or two.1 Warlocks show up with a resounding 21% deficit, and it gets worse from there. It’s safe to say that they’re not popular at creation, and that points to the class not having immediate appeal. They’re the house in the nice neighborhood which lacks curb appeal.

But what’s interesting is that they’re about as (un)popular as Priests, and more popular than Shaman from 10-19! Heck, even Paladins – the most popular class in the game – are unpopular at that level, though they quickly make up ground. If it’s the Warlock’s evilness which dooms them to unpopularity, why are traditionally heroic classes also unpopular?

That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Well, no, it doesn’t really.

The data in the 10-19 bracket represents the current number of characters in that bracket, not the sum of all characters who have passed through that bracket. It’s correct to say that Shaman are not very popular in 10-19, but that might be because they’re all moving on quickly to other levels.2 The shape of the line, and relative position, and how it ends up is more important for analysis than any specific intrabracket comparison.

Let’s look at this by directly comparing Warlocks to another popular class as they level.

Both classes experience a decline between their 30s-60s, but Paladins gain in popularity as they level. They’re almost twice as populous as Warlocks in Northrend.

When you hit Cataclysm:

Man, look at that hockey stick with the Paladin line! People love playing their Pallys at endgame.

Here are the numbers, which have also been added to the class distribution spreadsheet:

It’s tough to say, definitively, that people aren’t rolling Warlocks only because they’re the evil class with this data. It’s really tempting to say that because there’s such a small difference between Pallys and Warlocks in the lower levels, it must be because they like them equally. This is probably false.

The key isn’t in the 10-19 bracket and where they start – it’s with the overall population of each class. Character creation encompasses all characters, not just a subset of those leveling. What we see with the above graphs is that players enjoy leveling Paladins to the endgame and playing them there. They’re not rolling other alts, they level up and they play them. This is true to a much lesser degree with Warlocks, too – but the overall population of people who rolled a Paladin is much greater than the population of people who’ve rolled a Warlock.

In previous posts, I focused on endgame statistics – how many Warlocks were being brought to Heroic Raids, how many were getting 2200+ Arena ratings – which required focus on endgame, level 85 data. Determining if a class is over or underrepresented in Heroics/2200+ required a comparison between characters who could compete in an activity (because they were the correct level) and those who actually did. If we’d compared the total raiding population of a class to the entire class population, we’d draw the wrong conclusion. That’s not right.

So, let’s at total population data.3

Going back to the same source as the leveling data (Warcraft Realms), we get the following:

And let’s look at that as a graph:

There are some surprising results when you compare this data to the level 85 data for other classes – Hunters, Rogues and Shaman especially – but it’s not quite so revealing for Warlocks.

They’re still at the bottom of the barrel. This shouldn’t be surprising – leveling data puts them at low popularity, raiding data puts them scarce – but it’s good to see the data match up from different sources.

Let’s go ahead and compare the total population to the endgame populations.

This data is really interesting for other classes, but not really for Warlocks.

There are a few items to note:

  • Hunters make up 12.3% of the overall population, #2 behind Paladins. Their leveling popularity translates into a sizable active character pool, but a comparably scarce population at endgame.
  • Like Hunters, Rogues are more likely to be leveling than found at 85. This is probably due to the Legendary Carrot Effect. I think we’ll need to see Rogue data at different times to see if this really held true for Cataclysm.
  • Shaman are more likely to be 85 than leveling.
  • The massive DK population in the 50s and 60s is statistically a blip due to low populations at those levels.4

This, sadly, doesn’t really shed a lot of light on the question we’re trying to answer – is the reason for the class’s unpopularity because of their reputation as evil spellcasters, or because of other reasons?

We don’t really know. All we can say with confidence is that Warlocks are unpopular from start to finish.

There are a few ways we could test the theory of evil:

  • Add a major sympathetic Warlock character to lore in the middle of an expansion (to isolate it from expansion-basedclass changes) and see if popularity rises.
  • Conversely, add more negative Warlocks to lore and see if class popularity falls. Or rises! It all depends on the character. (…I do not really recommend this.)
  • Change the introductory class text and reskin the class to be a Friendship Wizard. See if people reroll to play with Rainbow Bolts.5
  • Survey Warcraft players to determine why they did, or did not, roll a Warlock.

Aside from those suggestions, I think this specific theory of evil driving players away is unprovable with existing data. It’s suggestive, and there’s an argument to be made for it.

But we need more evidence.

—-

(1) This data set is limited in a lot of ways – unfortunately we can’t see how many Warlocks really get rolled at the character screen. We’ll have to extrapolate initial character creation choice from the lowest level bracket, which isn’t perfect – but we’ll make due.

(2) Scroll of Resurrection toons went through it REALLY FAST.

(3) This doesn’t represent characters from all active subscribers, but a representative subset. When you look at the population of active characters across tracked realms, the sample size is statistically significant, so we can make due with it. This is one reason why I tend to deal with percentages instead of absolute character counts in this series.

(4) This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Death Knights are well represented in the endgame, but their status as a “Hero Class” makes them ideal bankers on new servers. At least a life of service to Auctioneer Jaxon is a far better fate than serving the Lich King?

(5) Mark my words, Friendship Wizards are going to dominate the DPS charts in the expansion after Mists.

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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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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