Setting the Record Straight (Again)…

… or “Why Ghostcrawler Isn’t as Smart as He Thinks He Is.

Now, you may recall that calling Blizzard on their bullshit is one of my favorite pastimes. What can I say? I’m a devout contrarian.

Not too long ago, Blizzard programmer Ghostcrawler posted this article on the new talent trees. He makes quite a few claims in it that just don’t hold water. It’s easy to win a “debate” when you’re allowed to argue both sides, snidely condescending to any who dare to espouse an opposing view. The problem is, that once again, the creative minds at Blizzard have overlooked some simple logic.  Put another way, they have once again missed the forest for the trees, something doubly ironic considering the title of the article.

The most troubling bit is this:

3.       “We’ll still have cookie-cutter builds with the new design.”
I am slightly amused by the number of comments that say “The theorycrafters will just math out which is the right talent and we’ll all just pick that one.” But the theorycrafters aren’t agreeing with those comments, because they know they won’t be able to.

And that, my friends is the crux of the problem. Maybe one option will “math out” and maybe it won’t. Blizzard isn’t always as careful with balance as they intend to be. But let’s say, for one minute, that they actually do manage to balance out the new talent trees such that no new talent is statistically more useful than your other options and all of them are equally useful. If no option is better than the other, then what you’ve done is made the choice irrelevant. If all options truly are equally viable then your choice doesn’t matter in the least. What you’re doing is choosing between a dime and two nickels. At which point, who cares?

Returning from fantasy land, to the slightly firmer soil of educated conjecture, the more disturbing implications of this oversight is that Blizzard seems to want to make the choices come down to “playstyle” so they stick your options into themes at each level. So, for example, you can choose from 3 types of snare on one level, 3 types of damage ability on the next, and 3 types of defensive cooldown on the one after that. I don’t particularly find the idea of taking a talent I don’t want just to move down the tree particularly “interesting,” “engaging,” or “rewarding.” No more do I find it particularly pleasing to be forced to leave 2 talents I *do* want laying on the table, because I can only get one. I do, however, note the irony that this is the exact same situation they claim they are trying to avoid (i.e. taking unwanted talents just to move on to the good stuff). I can almost see their logic in this one. If you put one each of a defensive cooldown, a utility cooldown, and a damage cooldown on each tier, then it’d pretty much be tanks on defense, healers on utility, and dps on damage every time. They want to avoid that (I don’t know why) so they’re trying to make each tier a choice between 3 similar talents.

Unfortunately, this leaves us in a very peculiar position. In essence, if they have their way, what we will be deciding in each talent tier is (for example) “How do you want your snare to work?” The problem, of course is that this varies by encounter. They’ve “addressed” this problem by allowing you to swap out your new talent tree in a way similar to how glyphs work now. The end result is that rather than the series of worthwhile choices they have claimed to give us, they have now given us cookie cutter talent choices on a per-encounter basis: they’ve replaced one cookie cutter spec with dozens. Uh, thanks?

At the end of the day the system looks to me less like a talent tree and more like a toll road. If your goal is to make us make choices, let us make them in the game. If you want me to decide on a per-encounter basis whether an “earthbind totem” style slowing effect is better than a “psychic scream” style fear effect, give me all of the abilities and let *me* choose which one to use. If you don’t want me to use them all at once, make them share a cooldown. However, moving that choice to the talent tree (which at this point seems to exist only for the sake of saying you have one) is sloppy game design. It fails to deliver anything other than the illusion of choice. When the situation arises in which the choice actually matters, the choice has already been made. If you made the wrong one, then too bad, you can’t adjust until after combat no matter how many times it crops up again.

To me, the truly rewarding and engaging part of gameplay is deciding on-the-fly what ability to use and when. Should I use a cooldown now or save it for later? If I use this now, what will I use next time the situation comes up? If I don’t use it now, will I use it at all? If I don’t use it now will we wipe, making all the previous questions moot? Is it worth losing the armor bonus to the tank to earthbind that add? These are the choices I have now when running encounters. These are the choices I find rewarding (when I make the right one) and engaging (when I learn from making the wrong one). I couldn’t give two bits of discarded nutriment about my talent tree. I’ve looked at it exactly once since 85 on one toon  (when I decided that instant spirit wolf was better than extra totem range) and not at all on several others. But you know what? That’s ok. I like that the talent tree is “set it and forget it.” I don’t want the talent tree to be a tedious endeavor, requiring constant switching and expensive reagents to be able to play my toon the way I want.

I’m not saying “change is bad, leave the talent trees alone.” Heck, can the half-measures and just remove the damn thing for all I care. I’m just saying that if you really can come up with eighteen compelling talents for each class (something I have seen no evidence of yet) then the best way to let me choose between them is by giving me all the buttons and seeing which one I go to in the clutch. If you want my choices to matter to me, let me make them in reaction to a situation and not merely in preparation for a scripted event. Let me adjust to mistakes by making a different choice the 2nd time the situation comes up. Let me have all the tools I need and choose the right one for the job each and every time. But don’t give me a choice between three hammers and call the one I pick a toolbox. I’m smarter than that.

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