Tobold's Blog
Saturday, November 20, 2010
A cornerstone of good gameplay is making interesting decisions

We think a cornerstone of good gameplay is making interesting decisions.
Well, it is official now: Blizzard agrees with me that gameplay in World of Warcraft should not exclusively be based on execution, but that making interesting decisions is a cornerstone of good gameplay.

Ghostcrawler was responding to players complaining that making healing more challenging in Cataclysm was sign that "Blizzard hates healers" and "nerfed" them. It is easy to see why that accusation is impossible, even theoretically: Healers are not in competition with tanks or damage dealers, thus any changes that affect *all* healers are strictly neutral. If anything, healers are better off when healing isn't too easy; not just, like Ghostcrawler says, because "easy healing" means mindlessly pressing the same button over and over, but also because the easier healing gets, the less slots does a raid need to reserve for healers. Imagine the ultimate healing spell, which for 1 mana heals 1 million health for the whole raid as an instant: Every raid, even 25 man, would just need to take a single healer with them, and he'd just be spamming that one button. I'm much in favor of the Cataclysm solution of making healing more challenging, and much more interesting to play.

So when comparing how much Blizzard "loves" or "hates" the three archetypes, we need to check how much these archetypes are in demand in a raid or group situation, and how well each archetype performs outside of groups in soloing. Obviously damage dealers come out on top in this consideration: A raid will always try to take the minimum number possible of tanks and healers, and give all the remaining slots to damage dealers. Damage dealers have a reserved 60% of slots in 5-man groups, same or better percentage of slots in raids, and solo play is designed in a way that maximum damage advances you fastest. As in groups there are always several damage dealers sharing responsability for the damage output, a dps player can more easily get away with underperforming than a healer or tank. Damage dealers only have two problems: As it is so blindingly obvious that they are so much better off than tanks and healers, far more than 60% of players go for this archetype. And playing a dps involves a priority list or spell rotation which is independant of what you are actually fighting, and thus playing a dps often lacks those "interesting decisions". That has social consequences as well: Playing a damage dealer is considered easy mode, suited for those who can't cut it in the more demanding roles, and that attitude is reflected in pejorative terms like "huntard" being thrown around, regardless of how intelligent a particular player actually is.

Healers are pretty much in a sweet spot right now. Because less people want to play a healer than are necessary for a group or raid, healers can easily get spots in groups and raids, and have only minimal waiting time in the Dungeon Finder queue. The demand for healers goes up when moving from 5-man groups to raids. And dual spec allows most healers (sorry, paladins) to switch into a caster dps spec in which they can perform very well without having to switch out of their healing gear.

If Blizzard "hates" any archetype, it must be tanks. While tanks get into 5-man groups and 10-man raids as easy as healers, there is only one "main tank" in every raid, even among 25 players, and the other tanks are just necessary for bosses with abilitities that necessitate a switch, or for "off-tanking", and 25-man raids usually need less than 5 tanks. Tanking gear, even after the removal of the defense stat, still needs lots of stats which are basically useless in solo play. So tanks are either condemned to be less efficient than others in solo play, or they have to collect a second set of gear to switch roles to dps.

So if Blizzard wanted to further improve class or role balance, they would need to make damage dealing involve more interesting decisions, for example with a system of changing resistances and vulnerabilities of mobs forcing damage dealers to switch from one type of damage to another. They also would need to make damage mitigation or healing more important in solo play, so tanks and healers would do better in solo mode. But those are theoretical considerations, and Cataclysm is already an improvement over previous incarnations of World of Warcraft regarding role balance.
One plus point for tanks though is that they get far more opportunities to make interesting decisions than the other roles, particularly in 5 man instances.
The major downside to Ghostcrawlers comment is that he is talking in very broad and subjective terminology when he makes use of "interesting decisions" in the manner in which he did.

Even with the class changes we are STILL slaves to the design of the dungeons/raids/encounters themselves, so unless the content and the mechanics are properly designed to allow the class changes to flourish, then players will still be stuck with one variation of the tank/dps/heal trinity over another. Blizzard has taken the same car and repainted it now at least a half a dozen times or more and PvP is still horribly broken.

One question I'd like to ask: How the hell can one be able to make "interesting decisions" in a mostly scripted event/encounter? Is Blizzard finally admitting that "standing in the fire" and enrage timers/ect...are all bad design elements and we are now entering a WoW Utopia where the content will make everyones class/racials unique and useable in every encounter?
I, too, smiled when I read Ghostcrawlers remarks. "Interesting decisions". Yeah!

I commented that I wonder how the mistake in WotLK could have happended to the best payed, most professional game designers in the world, but am happy that they now learnt that iteration does not mean to always go the path of least resistance with every single step.

About DDs being easy to play:
In WotLK I found healers to be mind dumbing, tanks to be moderately interesting and DDs to be mercilessly difficult and competetive to play in a raid environment. Yes, I played all those roles for a while.

Lastly, I would like to suggest a new system: Instead of gear with stats, we just give itemlevels. These itemlevels are then used to calculate the effect of skills/abilities directly.

It's not like WoW would put any focus on immersion nowadays and thus the advantages of such a system should easily convince most players. Especially you, Tobold ;)

You could easily switch from tank-warrior to dps-warrior without worrying about your useless tank-stats.

While we do this every character who played with the old rules, should receive a Feat of Strength and a pet. ... no, make that two pets. The second for $2, special price.
DDs to be mercilessly difficult and competetive to play in a raid environment

You are confusing game rules with social rules here. Damage dealers only get competitive if you have specific addons running to measure damage, and everybody scrambles to be on top of the list. That is a social phenomenon, and only works in specific social circumstances. In other circumstances, e.g. random groups, players can opt out of that and target the lower regions of the damage meter without much of negative consequences.
You can't predicate what a player will find "interesting". Any decision that a player has an interest in making becomes an interesting decision for that player.

Trying to design gameplay around the provision of decisions that will be interesting by default is a recipe for disaster. One player's "interesting" is another player's "frustrating".
I think we, as a gaming community, need to say “Great idea Ghostcrawler” and then wait and see. Gaming companies are notorious for saying one thing then doing something completely different and then claiming that is what they intended all along. On the same token though the gaming communities are notorious for never being satisfied.

Blizzard has to realize moving out of the fire isn’t really an interesting decision. Whether to cast a spell, or cast nothing aren’t interesting decisions. It’s always good to hear a major gaming company start quoting mantras of the bloging sphere though. It’s a step forward regardless of the way the implement the interesting decisions.
My biggest gripe is the vast difference between "making interesting decisions" and "making interesting decisions quickly" E.g., take two players where the second one has the WoW equivalent of 30 additional IQ points but their response time due to them/internet/PC is 600 milliseconds slower. Deciding to get out of a heroic ToC or Morrow fire is not an interesting decision. It is why I prefer much, much simpler healing mechanics in the current FPS get-out-of-fire twitchfest than if I were standing still and getting to make decisions about healing. At a certain level of twitching, assuming I still played, I would want only a single heal because healing would not be my main focus.

Excellent post, but two tiny quibbles: easy does not necessarily mean fewer employment opportunities: say the one button healer healed everyone in the raid for 500 health; you would need to bring a lot of them. While endgame you may get to 70% DD in a 10 man, starting out with 50% (3 heal) is not that uncommon.
Playing a damage dealer is considered easy mode, suited for those who can't cut it in the more demanding roles...

This isn't true at all. Being great at DPSing was the most challenging role in WotLK. Tanks and Healers by and large had a far easier time. In terms of WoW's versions and who had the hardest job:

Vanilla - Healers
TBC - Tanks
Cata - maybe healers again?

but yeah if your point was that being a mediocre DPS was very easy and numerous to the point of being looked down upon, you're right.
the real reason for the healer griping is that Blizz may be making healing more challenging -- but they aren't making the person being healed any more intelligent. Unless spike damage and the like is put under control alongside the "interesting healing" then healers are just going to get yelled at even more than they already do.
Greg Street has been advocating "interesting decisions" since he started posting on the public forums. It seems to be a Blizzard wide mantra as the lead designers of Diablo III have also talked in such terms.

To your post, you say that
And playing a dps involves a priority list or spell rotation which is independent of what you are actually fighting, and thus playing a dps often lacks those "interesting decisions".
If we take narrow the scope of what an interesting decision might be for a player to your implied definition, that statement isn't true of anybody generally, perhaps save for... a few healing specs during Wrath. Disc priests and raid shielding. Resto druids and rejuv spam. Players of those specs often used a small repertoire of spells in a fixed rotation without any consideration as to the state of the players they were targeting.

As for DPS, is what they do moment to moment a function of changing dynamics in an encounter? Most of the time yes. Take a fight like General Vexaz, Kel'thuzad or Lady Deathwhisper. What do they have in common? Interrupts. If the (mostly melee) dps fail to respond to the casting of a spell and continue blithely with their "rotation," they risk wiping the raid in a number of encounters in Wrath.

Another example: adds. Saurfang was an "interesting" fight from a (ranged) dps perspective as it required single targeting of a number of dangerous adds simultaneously. The adds not only demanded changing what and when most classes used abilities in order to maximize burst dps but also they often required utility abilities like stuns/slows.

More generally, all classes/roles have "interesting decisions" to make with respect to how they manage their own resources during a fight. They have to decide things like:

"Can I afford to blow this Shadow Word: Pain?" "Do I have the mana for these heals coming up or do I need an innervate?" "What's the boss at, oh, I need to shift to my execute spells." "Should I blow my rage now on a big heroic strike?" "Looks like I'm riding high on threat; I can't go into melee range for the next 20 seconds." "Should I Death Strike these Death runes or do I need more threat?" "DoT X is falling off target Y in 4 seconds but Y only has 10 seconds to live, should I refresh it on Y, or prioritize DoT refreshes on main target Z while using nukes on X?"

As for solo play, I'm much more inclined to choose my DK tank over my Warlock if all I'm interested in is the most efficient questing experience. The former has much higher damage mitigation, a higher health pool and better self-healing capacity. I never need to stop and that includes elite mobs and soloing group quests. Most healers have dps abilities now that allow them to solo pretty comfortably, better resource (mana) regeneration than their dps counterparts, and effectively infinite health. The picture you painted of damage dealers’ clear soloing superiority was true; it no longer is.
I'll echo Sean's comment on the ease of soloing as a tank these days. I'm leveling a paladin as prot spec, currently 66, with no heirlooms. Since the 4.0 patch, I have been doing enormous damage. In DF pick-up groups, I am almost always the top damage dealer. While doing routine kill-10-rats quests, I often one-shot mobs with an Avengers Shield crit. In addition, being a prot spec with the new Word of Glory self-heal allows me to easily solo group quests. With this ease of play, I can't imagine why anyone would have complaints leveling a paladin tank.
Tobold, you are wrong on this.

I've played challenging healer classes in other games. Making them challenging does not make them more interesting, it makes them more stressful. That's because you still are repeating the same basic content over time. There's just more to go wrong.

You also seem to think that challenging healing will attract more players to fill up the added need for them in raids. That's not the case: the more challenging any class is, the less people play it at all, and many drop out. It's not even a matter of skill: many passable healers that could adapt wont because it is just too much of a hassle to play the class.
I'm affraid Ghostcrawler is agreeing with Sid Meyer, Tobold. :)
Ghostcrawler has been saying that Blizzard loves getting players to make interesting decisions for quite a long while now. The earliest I can remember was when they were talking about why they decided to have sockets use color matching instead of just being regular colorless sockets. Because players are supposed to decide whether they want to not take optimal stats to get the beneficial socket bonus, or just gem for the optimal stats.

However, they dropped the ball with that because this was never a choice, and even if it was players very rarely had to lose out on beneficial stats to match all of their bonuses. There was always something useful.

I'm hoping they get it right this time with the healer mechanics, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if they cave to the QQstorm that is approaching from people having to relearn how to heal properly instead of spamming the fast spell.

No DPSing isn't hardest in Wrath. Its that if you have the extra tools and a group that cares about DPS, DPS can be measured on an effectively infinite scale against each other.

Tanks and healers are graded pass/fail. And there is only one person tanking a boss--you can't really compare them across jobs.

DPS looks hardest in ICC but I have suffered no ill consequences for bring in my way under geared DPS into ICC. Even if I was the bottom of the meters, who cares, the stuff died and everyone knew I was under geared.

You can choose to make DPS a harder game by measuring yourself against others or your own past performance. You don't have to.
I have an few comments on this post;

First off, I leveled my pally as prot through most of WotLK with a small bout of Ret. With Ret single targets died fast but I really missed grabbing 10 mobs and taking them all on as prot. The defense gear really helped with mitigation while healing. Once I hit 80 and got geared there wasn't a creature outside that I couldn't take on, with the exception of world dragons.

Second, I'm hoping that raiding changes in a way that I don't have to "learn" fights. I don't raid
often and I found that not knowing what to do and
when was a huge disadvantage to me. Also, there are so MANY fights in this game I find it difficult to remember all of them as well as my role in each one (I like to tank, heal and DPS). I would love to see fights you could learn with bosses that adjust their tactics based on what's happening.

You're confusing "interesting" with "challenging." In WotLK endgame content, healing was definitley both challenging and stressful. In 25 man heroics you'd have to spend entire 10 minute encounters spamming spells continually while also not blinking. If there was an unforseen damage spike and you hesitated for 0.5 seconds the entire 25 man raid might wipe. Basically it was a very unforgiving and twitchy raid design.

Blizzard wants to keep healing challenging without relying on twitchy raid mechanics, which is good. Now instead of spending ten minutes spamming spells without blinking, we will supposedly have time to think about which spell we should be casting. I greatly welcome this change, and may even start doing 25 man raids again.

DPS the hardest class? That's seriously funny. Tanking has always been the hardest class and always will be. Perhaps it's hard to be number 1 on the dps chart, but that's irrelevant.

Likewise, it's also hard to be the top geared tank on any given server. But that has nothing to do with the overall difficulty of tanking.
So many differing opinions so little time to address them all… well actually I have all the time in the world.

@ mmomisanthrope. Tobold is not wrong. You disagree with them, there is a huge difference and you would do well to learn that on almost any blog. I have a lot I could say in response to you, but as I have no idea which game you’ve played that had challenging healing, I’m not sure where to come from. I’ve played “most” MMOs out there, and as a healer or support role of some sort in every one I have played. I honestly can’t think of one where healing was hard on its own. I’ve been in situations that were hard but not because of how my class was designed, it was due to the amount of damage being thrown around. (Last room in Shadow Labs we use to pull the entire thing)

@ Guthammer. Just because you can auto attack as DPS doesn’t mean it’s not the hardest. To be the best DPS in a raid takes a lot more effort than it does to be the best healer or tank. I will agree that DPS has more room to be bad though, but I think this is due to the other people playing DPS classes who are trying to be so good, they can offset it. Healing and Tanking is pretty much a pass/fail but it takes a lot less effort to pass as one of those classes than it does to excel at a DPS class.

@Hugh Jass. I’m not sure what to say to you. Part of me wants to scream at you for being a “bad” and part of me sympathizes with you. If you are unable to learn the existing encounters what makes you think you would be able to adjust to a boss who has no set patterns? In reality a non-scripted fight, which is what it would take for interesting decisions to occur every encounter, is going to be much more difficult than the current scripted fights. You would have to be ready to react to a possible 5…10 or who knows how many situations when currently it’s all automated with DBM.

The major problem with any interesting decisions that WoW tries to implement, it will be theory crafted to death and optimized in 24 hours… at the most a week. If you create an encounter with 15 different random abilities that counters how the raid reacts you can be sure that the raiding community will memorize these reactions by the boss and alter their moves to best optimize it. It’s still going to be a script but with a higher demand on precision for the raiders. It is impossible to completely randomize anything in a video game. Every a computer does is based on set rules, once the players learn these rules they will again optimize the decisions out of it.

In regard to your stance on tanks being pass/fail, that is not necessarily true.

A good tank has to worry about TPS the exact same way DD's have to worry about DPS. This was much less of an issue in Wrath then it was in TBC, where a tank's threat often bottlenecked the raid's dps. But it still can be in an issue in Wrath.

In end game content, a good tank also has to worry about using the exact right priority rotation, similar to what DD's do, in order to maximize TPS. But in addition he also has be perfect on all fight mechanics, damage mitigation cooldowns, pulls, etc.
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