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Blizzard's Street defends WOW talents revamp

Old model "fundamentally flawed and unfixable".

The lead systems designer of World of Warcraft has mounted a frank and detailed defence of the revamp to talents coming in next expansion Mists of Pandaria in a lengthy blog post.

Blizzard's Greg Street, AKA Ghostcrawler, tackled common complaints about the drastic simplification of talents one by one. It's a fascinating, honest and eloquent post, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in MMO design.

The new talents system scraps WOW's complex talent trees, in which players unlocked and invested points in various customisations and improvements to their character. Instead, players will simply choose between one of three very different talents every 15 levels. This is intended to allow for more meaningful choices and eradicate optimal "cookie cutter" builds, which Street says are a mathematical certainty in the old system.

"Look, we tried the talent tree model for seven years," Street said. "We think it's fundamentally flawed and unfixable. We know some of you have faith in us that someday we'll eventually replace all of the boring +5% crit talents with interesting talents and give you 80 talent points that you can spend wherever, and that the game will still remain relatively balanced and fun. We greatly appreciate your faith, but we fear it is misplaced.

"It's not a matter of coming up with enough fun mechanics, which is challenging but ultimately doable. The problem is the extreme number of combinations. When you have such a gigantic matrix, the chances of having unbeatable synergies, or combinations of talents that just don't work together is really high. That's not lazy design. That is recognizing how math works."

Street accepted that the new system means that players will have fewer choices, but argued that the choices they do have will be much more interesting, and that "interesting choices are fun".

Street also launched a broadside at players who enjoy the supremacy of optimal builds. "The players in question fully admit that they don't experiment to find the best build. They accept the cookie cutter spec that is offered from a website, but then they use the fact that they knew the cookie cutter to mock players who don't. Intimate knowledge of game mechanics certainly is and should be a component of skill. But knowing how to Google '4.3 Shadow spec' doesn't automatically make you a better player."

Talents are no longer linked to class specialisations, leading players to concludes that specs no longer mattered. Street said he wanted players to choose their spec based on personal preference for a certain flavour or play style, rather than because certain abilities would be required by a raid.

He acknowledged that many of the new talents are situational, and appeared to be skewed towards player-versus-player rather than optimal performance in a raid. But he also admitted that it was Blizzard's responsibility to make WOW's player-versus-environment gameplay more interesting to encourage the use of those abilities.

"Now if you're a solo player or a fairly casual raider and you don't often find the need to use crowd control or hit a defensive cooldown, then maybe the choice isn't compelling," he said. "But we think that's a problem with the game. I think it's a fair complaint that our outdoor world creatures have become a little monotonous over the years.

"Once upon a time, you could choose to take on that camp of gnolls, or you could try and handle the elite ogres, or you might get a patrolling kobold. While we don't want outdoor levelling to be brutally difficult, that doesn't mean that every situation needs to be solved with 3 Sinister Strikes... When players use their full toolbox of abilities intelligently, they tend to feel good about their character and the game. But it is our responsibility to engineer more of those situations into the world."

Some players have accused Blizzard of making change for change's sake, which Street admitted was a "tricky issue" with the "inherently living designs" of MMOs. He finished by revealing that Blizzard had held back from implementing this change in the last expansion, Cataclysm, fearing it was too radical - but now sees the changes to talents that were made in Cataclysm as a failed compromise.

"We changed talent trees in Cataclysm to try and fix some of the underlying problems the talent design had since its inception. We actually considered going to the Mists model for Cataclysm, but we were worried that the change would be too shocking to players, so we went with a more restrained design first.

"As often happens with compromises, it didn't fix the underlying problems. Our hope is that this new design solves them once and for all... We hope that an overhaul this drastic isn't necessary again for a long time to come."

You can try out the new system in the Mists of Pandaria talent calculator on the World of Warcraft website.

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