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.

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