Thursday, April 16, 2009
Elements of Performance
So there you are, looting the freshly killed raid boss in World of Warcraft, and checking your performance with some addon like Recount. It shows you how much damage you dealt, in total and per second, or how much you healed, and even what spells you used on what target. But how did you get to this level of performance, and how could you improve it? The addon can't tell you, so lets analyze the elements of performance:
1) "Skill", as in arcade game skill. You pressed every button you had to press at exactly the first possible moment the cooldown allowed, while in parallel moving your character to exactly where he should stand. The importance of this element varies a lot from boss to boss. At some bosses like Patchwerk or Loatheb you might have been standing perfectly still all fight long, while other fights like Heigan require a lot of movement, Malygos phase 3 even in 3D. As long as you don't move, pressing your spell and ability buttons in time isn't a huge problem for most classes, due to a relatively long global cooldown. Some classes need to move more or press more buttons than other classes.
2) "Skill", as in tactical skill. You had to make some quick decisions during the fight, and you always chose the right option. That means you need to keep your eye open and notice what is happening around you, see whether there is some area effect you need to move out of for example. Some classes are more likely to have to take decisions during a fight, for example healers that might need to decide who to heal with what spell. Taking a decision includes the option of taking the wrong decision, so raid strategies usually try to minimize decision making. In some fights that works so well that you don't have to decide anything at all, you just follow a fixed spell rotation. Other fights are more random in nature, and need you to decide more.
3) "Skill", as in knowledge of your class, coming from theorycrafting. You don't necessarily need to have done the math yourself, but then you need to be aware of the results of other theorycrafters. What talents, stats, and spell rotation give the maximum performance? This element of performance is one you don't do during the fight, but well before, and often even outside the game, reading up on forums like Elitist Jerks. There is often a "best" solution, even if frequent patches and nerfs make this seem to be flavor of the month. In most cases the best solution does not depend very much on which boss you are actually fighting.
4) "Skill", as in knowledge and experience of the particular fight. Bosses in World of Warcraft differ by their special abilities, and you need to know what special abilities they have, and what are the relevant countermeasures. A part of this you can acquire before you meet the boss for the first time, by reading boss strategies, or watching videos on YouTube. But practice makes perfect, especially on some of the bosses that need more arcade game skills.
5) "Gear", or rather the stats that gear gives. All other things being equal, a caster with more spellpower bonus performs better than somebody with less. A caster who runs out of mana in the middle of a fight is only marginally useful for the rest of it. A tank with too low health or insufficient damage mitigation stresses the healer's resources to the limit, or over the limit and dies. Gear is what Blizzard uses to regulate raid progression. Raid dungeon A is "before" raid dungeon B, because you need the gear from A to succeed in B. If there was no gear requirement, there would be nothing to keep you from going to B directly, now that there are no attunements any more. Gear is also what keeps guilds repeating raids they already succeeded in. A raid dungeon doesn't end because you killed the final boss, you're going again next week, and the week after, and the week after, until you are well enough equipped for the next raid dungeon.
It is important to stress that your overall performance is the sum of these 5 elements, arcade skill, tactical skill, theorycrafting skill, practice skill, and gear. And there is no fixed proportion, it isn't as if each of them made up 20% of your performance in every fight. Different boss fights depend on different elements, some are more gear dependant, others need more arcade game skills. And you can often compensate deficits in one area with better performance in other elements. Guilds that are stronger on the various skills often dismiss gear as not important for that reason, although of course that only means they need less of it, not that they are doing boss fights naked. More casual guilds, which spend less time studying and practicing, can compensate to some degree by gearing up more. But of course that doesn't help much on fights that don't depend much on gear, which is one reason why vehicle fights are contentious. The Malygos phase 3 fight has zero influence of gear, and in the first fight of Ulduar gear gives a comparatively small bonus only, plus of course all theorycrafting you did for your character goes out of the window if you play a vehicle instead. By reducing a boss fight to arcade elements which only depend on your reaction time and practice, you're stripping away a lot of what defines a MMORPG, and end up with massively multiplayer online Super Mario Brothers.
Another problem is that some people sum up all the various skills into one big "leet skillz" bundle. That makes discussion complicated, and often unfruitful. The different skills I listed have different prerequisites. For example intelligence obviously helps for theorycrafting, whether it is done on your own, or understanding the results of others. But intelligence doesn't help your reaction time or muscle memory at all, so calling somebody "stupid" or "moron & slacker" just because his arcade game skills are low is totally misleading. While I don't like the term, nor the disrespect implied in it, there is admittedly some justification in calling somebody a "moron & slacker" if the lack of performance comes from that person not having read up on his class, the fight, or failed to understand the basics of either. But it is actually easier to teach somebody the things he hasn't understood about his class or the boss fight (or simply do his talent distribution for him and show him the 3 buttons to press) than it is to teach him better reaction time. Especially if you consider that the average age of the World of Warcraft player is around 30, with a wide distribution from small kids to pensioners, and that things like reaction time and decision time are highly correlated with age and gender.
Thus is summary I think that raid encounters that are based on a variety of skills and gear are better balanced than those which are reduced to an arcade game. The more elements there are that determine performance, the more inclusive the game becomes, enabling people with deficits in one area to compensate with other strengths. Of course some people prefer World of Warcraft to be *not* inclusive, because the less people are able to beat an encounter, the more special those who can feel. Understandable, but somewhat petty. And exclusiveness is not necessarily a good business strategy for a company trying to hold onto the maximum number of subscribers.