Saturday, February 21, 2009

Healing in first person view

A couple nights ago I had a dream. Like a lot of people often do I'm sure, I had a gaming dream. I was playing WoW and doing a raid on some boss I'd never seen before. I was healing and the rest of the raid was spread out around the boss in various positions. I woke up and had the dream fresh in my mind, so I was quick to notice something unusual about it.

I wasn't using raid frames.

In the dream, the HP of each raid member was clearly visible in the game display, and each player's nameplates was perfectly easy to click. I had previously considered Ghostcrawler's comments about improving nameplates for healing and decided that try as Blizzard might, no serious healer would ever use the nameplates for healing. They simply lacked precision. Suddenly I began to doubt that position. In the dream, the nameplates didn't jump around the screen when players got close to each other. It occurred to me that it would not be hard to code the nameplates to have a little more 'weight' as it were, so they could not simply blink around the screen when they ran out of space, but instead would slide out of the way at a fixed max speed when they needed to. Players that were behind me or off to the side still had their nameplates on the game window, with little arrows to indicate the direction they were.

Yes, I thought, that could all work in such a way that healers could look up from the raid UI and see the actual fight. I started adding buff icons, MT indicators and out-of-range styles in my imaginary setup. But the sober light of morning quickly revealed the problem with this model. In a first-person game, the direction you are facing is always 'forward'. When you turn, as you will inevitably need to in a fight of any complexity at all, the entire set of name plates would spin around with you. It wouldn't be good as a healer to have to quickly turn around to avoid a Bad Thing™ and then let the tank die because you couldn't locate his spinning nameplate fast enough.

Nameplate targeting only makes sense if you have some control over which way is forward. You could have a view mode that fixes your camera in a certain direction. (Just like it does in WoW if you hold the left mouse button while keyboard turning.) But it would immediately become confusing to use movement keys where 'forward' was no longer forward. You could then replace the typical WASD style key meanings with keys that move up, down, left, and right with respect to the camera, rather than to your character. Then the whole thing might make sense. But at this point, you no longer have a first person view game. You have a standard third person, three-quarter view. (Think Mario64.) And I just think that's too much of a change, even if it were a temporary camera mode you could switch in and out of.

So I'm back to giving up on the idea of getting rid of raid frames. However what I notice interesting in GC's original post now was that better nameplates was not the primary way he suggested freeing healers from the UI. The first thing he mentioned was "throwing larger heals more rarely". I hadn't really understood where he was going with this until I re-read the thread this week where he expounded on the regen nerf in 3.1. I was so focused on the numbers he provided, I hadn't noticed the reasoning (actually explained better by Thorene halfway down.) If heals hit less often, then priests and druids would never run out of mana because we could exploit our various OOFSR tricks to regen infinite mana. So it's less of an overall nerf as it is a preemptive balance change to make shamans and paladins viable in future encounters that feature "larger heals more rarely". I still don't understand how druids are supposed to be competitive in this new world though. Nothing could describe the opposite of druids better than "rare large heals."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dual specs

Optimus PrimeThe dual spec feature of WoW announced way back at BlizzCon 2008 has been receiving a lot of attention lately as it comes closer to reality. Don't be fooled by how popular the feature is among the player base into thinking that this is a hands-down great concept. A lot of players have been clamoring for free, unlimited respecs. But this doesn't mean it would be a good idea for Blizzard or the game. I think dual specs are an interesting compromise between competing business interests. On one hand you want to spread your content out over time, and allowing characters to access all the various talent designs quickly and easily makes it more likely that they will tire of the game sooner. On the other hand Blizzard has created two very different and compelling games in WoW, PVE and PVP, but through the talent design has made it so you sort of have to choose which one you will play. So from a business perspective it makes sense to allow players to get to play both games if it means they will play more than they would otherwise, provided they won't burn through all your content faster than they would otherwise. So I think that kind of reasoning gets us pretty directly to the dual spec idea in its current form. You wouldn't want to open up unlimited free respecs since that would make it likely that players will just exhaust all the play possibilities for a given class without ever really feeling vested in one style or the other.

At an extreme, imagine if max-level players had the option to change their class just by visiting a trainer. How many hours of alt-leveling would players forgo? If players simply have no interest in leveling another character and it came down to a decision between "re-classing" your character or not playing at all, then it might actually make sense to allow this possibility from a business perspective. But they have to be really careful with how far they go with this. If players don't feel vested in a character and don't identify with the character, they're much more likely to get bored and abandon it. The leveling process is the means by which a player connects with their character and becomes emotionally connected with it. To a degree this applies to specs as well and players would feel a little less vested in their character if they weren't able to identify themselves as a "protection-specced tank" or a "moonkin" and were instead just another warrior or druid. Incidentally, I actually fully expect Blizzard to make it much easier to level up alts as we go, to make it more likely that players will try out new characters. It shouldn't be as easy as visiting a trainer, but it should be a little easier than playing through hours of quests they've already done. The heirloom items were a great addition, and I think they could take that concept much further.

One player, Lhivera, who was very well known in the mage community quit the game last year, probably for several reasons, but calling the dual spec feature the "final straw". He argued mainly that it breaks suspended disbelief, likening it to an accountant suddenly deciding that he wants to be a baseball player. He felt that for the sake of a game he was willing to suspend his disbelief through a lot of things, and this was just too far for him to go. Of course he realizes he's not being forced to respec, but makes the very good argument that any feature that provides an advantage for free would put you at a competitive disadvantage if you chose not to use it.

I have trouble following him all the way on this point. I feel like I had to suspend a lot of disbelief already just by being able to respec at all. Believing that I can pay a guy to allow me to forget everything I've trained myself to do and instantly learn a whole other set of skills is a lot to ask. It seems a small thing to additionally say I can do it with an item as opposed to talking to a certain person. He got a lot more sympathy from me when he talked about identifying with his character as a frost mage. That is what he is, and it would break his feeling of identity if he could casually flip between being a frost mage and a fire mage. I personally play my characters with a strong sense of identity. My warrior is a tank, and my druid is a healer. Although they have dabbled in variations that took them partway down different talent trees, they have never abandoned their primary spec. If I wanted a DPS character, I would much rather level another character with that intent than change my spec.

Lhivera argued that the trees should all be competitive in all aspects of the game, and that players should be required to stick with a certain talent tree, giving respecs a cooldown and a greater cost. He confused me here a bit by acknowledging that there should be a difference between say a frost PVE spec and a frost PVP spec, and the same time as saying respecs should be inconvenient and infrequent. I kind of think he was thinking of some kind of system where you could respec within your tree much easier than changing your main tree completely. I'm almost certain the dev team at Blizzard talked about something like this and abandoned it as being cumbersome and complicated. However I don't see why Lhivera himself couldn't have used the dual spec that way and still retained his frost identity, with two very different frost specs for different purposes. I personally will most likely use it that way. My warrior will probably have a no-nonsense boss-tanking Protection spec, and a more DPS-heavy, PVP, trash-tanking Protection spec. My druid will play with his current standard tree spec and maybe another healing spec more focused on healing touch, perhaps even down to Dreamstate with enough DPS talents for some decent soloing speed. In both cases their dual spec would change their style of performing their role, but not their actual role.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mana regen changes for 3.1 = Druid nerf

Amongst all the class change previews for WoW patch 3.1 was a lengthy post explaining the changes being made to mana regen to help make mana conservation more important.
* Regeneration while not casting (outside of the “five second rule”) will be decreased. We think that (1) the ability to cast heal over time spells and then sit back and (2) benefitting from a clearcasting proc that also gets you out of the five second rule both provide too much mana regeneration, even over short time periods.
Ouch. This hits me right where it hurts. It's difficult to imagine a paragraph that says 'druids are OP' more strongly without actually using the word 'druid'. While it's true that priests also have HoTs and clearcasting, the style of healing that uses clearcasting to get outside the FSR seems to have gone out of style for priests back at 70. The druid alone has the means to really exploit clearcasting (Omen of Clarity in our case) and multiple stacking HoTs to produce non-stop healing while outside the FSR. On top of that we already had strong incentive to stack spirit because of the tree's conversion of spirit into spellpower and innervate working off of spirit. So all that spirit really kicks in if we dance around OoC to get outside the FSR.

On one hand, it's something of a vindication for me. I had been reading EJ resto druid threads and was surprised not to see more discussion of this style of healing and explaining why I thought it was so powerful. I know that the current content is so easy that it doesn't really matter what style of healing you use, but back when I tried Malygos or Sartharion for the first few times, I leaned heavily on this technique and fully expected to again in 3.1 once content became harder. I had been amassing spirit gear, gemming and enchanting spirit, and collecting spirit consumables. So it's sort of nice to see that the technique that I had thought was so powerful that it was semi-exploitative was apparently at the top of Blizzard's list of things that were too powerful. Of course on the other hand... damn. I will need to redo a lot of my gear now.
* To make this change, we are reducing mana regeneration granted by Spirit across the board. However we are also boosting the effects of talents such as Meditation that increase regeneration while casting. The net result should be that your regeneration while casting will stay about the same, but your not-casting regeneration will be reduced. This change will have little impact on dps casters, since they are basically always casting.
Bam. And there's the other shoe. Huge nerf to me and my chosen way of life.
* The specific talents and abilities being boosted are: Arcane Meditation, Improved Spirit Tap, Intensity, Mage Armor, Meditation, Pyromaniac and Spirit Tap. Yes this makes these “mandatory” talents even more mandatory, if such a thing is possible.
Interesting that most of these talents are for DPS casters. Only two of these abilities are healing talents: Intensity for druids and Meditation for holy priests. Note carefully that this does not mean priests and druids are being buffed. These buffs are compensations for the fact that we have a lot of spirit on our gear that's getting nerfed. But note as well that the grand-daddy of all regen-while-casting abilities is not mentioned here: Innervate. Phaelia points out that this is a big nerf to Innervate and hopes that it's only not mentioned here as an oversight, an opinion which is sheer naïveté. This is a druid nerf.
* Since paladins rely less on Spirit as a mana-regeneration stat, we have to address them in other ways. We don’t want to change Illumination or Replenishment. However, we are going to increase the healing penalty on Divine Plea from 20% to 50%. Divine Plea was originally intended to help Protection and Retribution paladins stay full on mana. It should be a decision for Holy paladins, not something that is automatically used every cooldown.
Interesting that paladins are singled out here. There's another class that 'relies less on Spirit' that isn't mentioned here at all: Resto shamans. You guys are relatively untouched by these changes, a net buff. I guess you've had about as much punishment as you had coming to you for your god-like status at the end of TBC. Look forward to seeing shamans catch back up in Ulduar. Also discipline priests are sort of on the outside of all this. They do not favour spirit and have fewer clearcasting procs (no Surge of Light). Expect to see even more priests take a trip on the Discipline side.
* In addition, we are also changing the way Spiritual Attunement works. In situations with a large amount of outgoing raid damage, as well as in PvP, this passive ability was responsible for more mana regeneration than we would like. We want to keep the necessary benefit it grants to tanking Protection paladins, while making it less powerful for Holy paladins in PvP or raid encounters with a lot of group damage.
That's interesting. I wouldn't have thought of that as being a noticeable amount of regen.
* We are also taking a close look at clearcasting procs themselves. One likely outcome is to change them to an Innervate-like surge of mana so that the net benefit is the same, but healers won’t shift to out-of-casting regeneration so often.
Interesting... Umm... so it's like Innervate instead of out-of-casting regen. But Innervate is out-of-casting regen. I assume this means it will be like Innervate in the sense of multiplying your regen, but not in the sense of letting your spirit kick in. If so, this is aimed squarely at spirit-stacking druids. What really bothers me about this change is not the nerf so much as the fact that clearcast proccing was a very fun style of healing and required a lot of skill. You had to carefully watch your procs on top of everything else you had to watch and make split-second decisions on how to use each proc and to determine if you could safely get out of the FSR or not, and for how long. To really get the most out of it, it also meant that you had strong incentive to melee something in between casts. And you can't tell me there's anything much more fun than hitting a boss with tree branches.
* We balance around the assumption that even 10-player groups have someone offering Replenishment. To make this even easier on players we are likely to offer this ability to additional classes, as well as make sure that existing sources of Replenishment are more equitable.
So far Replenishment has been additionally given to frost mages and warlocks (practically all specs I believe). This should mean that almost any group of 10 or 25 will have near 100% replenishment uptime. If the basic mechanic isn't changing, I expect this will create a strong shift from spirit to int for regen stats for priests and druids. Of course, priests get an additional benefit from int that druids do not. You may however see a resurrection of the nearly dead Dreamstate build, though I doubt it will be more than a passing fad.
* These changes are ultimately being done to bring the different healing classes more in line with each other as well as to give the encounter team more leeway when designing encounters, who can balance with these new mana regeneration numbers in mind. In a world with infinite healer mana, the only way to challenge healers is with increasingly insane amount of raid damage, so that global cooldowns become the limiting factor since mana fails to be. An example is the Eredar Twins in late Sunwell. We weren’t necessarily happy with that model, and this change hopefully allows us to move towards giving healing a more deliberate and thoughtful pace rather than frenetic spam.
Without directly saying it, I interpret "more in line" to mean "nerf druids, buff shamans". What will raid encounters look like now for healing? If we see them move more towards Blizzard's suggestion of fewer, larger hits as seems to be implied here, then druids will be the big losers since we have no competitive way to deal with large spikes of damage.