Before going into predictions, it will be useful to look at the current class populations statistics. Despite the prevalence of max-level alts to switch to, the class of each player's current "main" will likely be the biggest deciding factor in which class they play in Cataclysm. There will need to a strong reason to switch, especially since mounts, pets, and achievements are non-transferrable (something that I'm almost begging Blizzard to change, even if it's for a fee). For instance, I have not been willing to begin to entertain the thought of switching mains away from my Death Knight because of his Rusted Proto Drake . . . plus all the pets (many impossible or horrendously difficult to replace), mounts (including a 12k gold motorcycle), and achievements.
All of this data considers only level 80 characters.
Right now, Armory Data Mining puts the classes at:
To back up that data with a second source, here are the likely-less-accurate numbers from the Warcraft Census:
I'm going to assume that a comparably large percentage of these level 80 DKs are not mains, given the high DK starting leve and the "shiny and new" factor. I don't see any reason to consider any of the other classes less likely to be mains or more likely to be alts.
In summary, there are way too many goddamned Paladins.
Role representation is also a concern. Basing my estimates off of the percentage of all Paladins and Warriors who specced Prot, we can assume that roughly 7% of the population is a DK or Druid tank. Add on the prot tanks, and only 16% of the population is a tank.
20% of a 5-man or 10-man is a tank. On the other hand, 12% of a 25-man raid is a tank. That means there are too many tanks for 25-man raids, but not even close to enough for 5-man or 10-man content. This indicates that Blizzard needs to balance 25-man raids to include more tanks, and if that's not enough, take more steps to increase the tank population.
The problem is similar for healers: only 18% of all level 80's heal. Sure, you only need 20% for 5-mans, but raids need about 25%.
No matter how you look at it, there is a healer shortage, and a massive tank shortage outside of 25-man raids.
Pure DPS classes have nosedived in Wrath, filling out the bottom of the population list. Overall, they make up 32% of the population, vs 34% who are hybrids playing a DPS class. It seems clear that the community perceives the benefits of hybrids, especially with dual-spec available, as far outweighing the unevenly-implemented "hybrid tax". Unless something is explicitly done to prevent it, I believe this trend will continue.
- 25-mans must be rebalanced to require more tanks.
- Tank and healer populations need to be increased
- Pure dps classes need to be be more appealing for dps relative to hybrid dps classes
- We need fewer plate dps and more leather dps
In predicting class populations, it also makes sense to consider the current popularity of each race. It stands to reason that many players will be loathe to leave their favorite race, or consider race as a factor when considering a new main.
Armory Data Mining:
Humans and elves are predominant. The most physically imposing races come next, as does the "darkest" race. The ugliest and smallest races take up the rear. Apparently, the type of people who play WoW a lot want to roleplay as something beautiful, big and strong. Whodathunkit?
Worgen will be explosively popular. They will hit the ultimate trifecta heretofore untouched by other races: they will be the Shiny New Thing, and the "darkest" thing, and also be able to look exactly like the most popular race at the drop of a hat, all at the same time! Everyone will make a Worgen. But few will make a Worgen their new main before they are opened up for race changes from existing characters. So 3 months after Cata release, they will be few and far between at 80. 6 months after and beyond, they will eventually overtake most other races, just as the Blood Elves have since BC.
Goblins are both ugly and short. Being shiny, new, and highly anticipated will help them, but they will never exceed even Orcs in population.
Rating Each Class Preview
So how did each class preview pan out? Look! I rate them from 1-10! Based on how much they would make people want to main that class in Cata!
Blood became the dedicated tanking tree, which is a good change but won't help the numbers. Rune system change is great, but a bit under-the-hood, so would only lead to modest population uptick. New abilities are extremely lackluster.
Almost every change addresses something wrong with druids. They are getting a few cool abilities, more buttons to push as bear, an easier cat rotation, eclipse is getting overhauled, their heals are staying largely intact and benefiting from crit and haste, and there are no clear nerfs. Wow.
They are getting Focus instead of mana, which will push away almost no one and draw a few more in. The increased pet stable will be a big draw. Their rotation is getting less frantic. Annoyances like Ammunition are going away. Pets are getting increased raid utility. And the new abilities are very exciting.
Bloodlust, only better. Since BL isn't going away, keen players will find the buff to be a big draw to a mage or shaman. Other new abilities are OK, but there are very few mechanics changes.
Are you fucking serious? Cool new abilities (one of them is literally "flashy") that all have utility in both PvE and PvP, easier buffing, and Paladins become the only class with an exclusive buff (Kings, though GC started a rumor that Druids might get it).
Strong mechanic improvements, and flashy, cool new spells like Life Grip (though Life Grip will turn some people off because it gives them extra responsibility). The changes should rope in some people who would otherwise be turned off, but priest populations will always remain relatively stable.
The combo point system is improved (that system was the biggest annoyance with rogues) and survivability is going up, while stunlocks are nerfed. Smoke Bomb is super-flashy. Rogue population will go up among raiders and down among gankers.
Lots of flashy, cool new spells, but little in the way of mechanic changes or real improvements.
Shard overhaul, decent new spells, and green fire. A few nice mechanics changes.
Awesome fix to rage. Heroic Strike going away as an on-next-attack spam button. New abilities are booooring. No news on exactly how they will be improved to be brought in line with the other tanks on ease of aoe threat, or how the other tanks will be nerfed (yes, vague things have been said so far, but not enough concrete stuff to bank on).
Healer and Tank changes:
One last thing to consider before we get to the predictions are the major changes being made to healers, and to a lesser extant tanks, as a whole.
The healing change to make them care about mana is a great design idea, if I understand it correctly. We won't know how good it is until we play it, but it sounds like we won't need to keep people topped off at all, instead doing triage based on leaving some people who aren't in danger at medium health. It follows that someone at half-health isn't likely to die in the next few seconds unless they are staying in the fire.
But the healing change is a major turn-off for healers. No matter how much PR GC tries to do, the bottom line is that it sounds like a nerf, and sounds like more work (even if it's not going to turn out that way). What GC needs to do ASAP is release a video demonstrating what healing will be like in Cataclysm, and showing very clearly why it will actually be more fun and less stressful.
As Gevlon and others have pointed out, if you make healer mana the limiting factor in a raid's or group's success, then you give everyone even more reason to blame the healers. Even if it isn't the healer's fault, the social perception will be that it's easy to blame the healer. And Blizzard is continually thinking of this game too much as a game system when they should be thinking about it as a social environment a lot more. Hire Tobold to be your social engineer!
Meanwhile, the tanking changes that make threat scale better with gear are broadly appealing, though talk of making AoE tanking more difficult will likely be misunderstood by some as a nerf.
Now that that's out of the way, here are my predictions, from lowest to highest, of populations percentages for each class at 85 about 3 months after the release of Cataclysm.
Bad news, shamans. No amount of Healing Rain can save you. Mages are getting Bloodlust, and none of the most popular races can be your class, including Worgen (and lots of Draenei players will switch to Worgen). The only new Shaman will be Dwarves and Goblins, two of the least popular races. The mana change will be perceived as a nerf, hurting the representation of healers of every class. Totems will remain an annoyance, and you still won't have escape mechanisms, and Enhance will still play like a weaker Ret Paladin. Sorry.
Death Knight: 7.5%
Yeah, you read that right. Biiig cut. Most people will not level their 80 DK as their main in Cata. Paladin popularity will hit this class the worst, but the unexciting new abilities and the loss of freshness won't help either. Expect a good number of Worgen DKs who want an easy way to get a Worgen to 80 early, but few Goblin DKs, as most players will want to roll a Goblin only to see the new starter experience. The appeal of seeing the new 1-60 content will cut into the number of DKs, since they start at 58 (once they get out of their starter zone).
Warlocks will see a tiny increase due to their improvements, especially the soul shard system. They will be hurt by the lack of a new pet and what I expect will be a surge in mage popularity.
Priest population should stay pretty steady. More than any other class, priests attract a certain type of person, and there is nothing in the preview to suggest they will lose players. Nevertheless, there will be a sizeable drop due to the mana change to healers driving away many players from healing classes. That is the main reason I have them rated so low. The popularity of Druids, especially as Worgen, will also take a bite out of the Priest population.
This is also a modest increase for rogues. They will be popular Worgen and Goblin classes, and more popular as raiding mains because of their improved combo point system. They will lose some people who are PvP fans.
I expect a signifiant increase in the hunter population. The biggest factor here is that many of the most popular races can already be hunters, as can both of the new classes, and even humans and undead will be able to hunt in Cata. Also, the improved pet system and the addition of focus will attract more people than it drives away, noticeably increasing the hunter population. I expect them to increase in PvP popularity as well as the focus turns away from Arena and toward BGs.
A class with Bloodlust, except it can be played by all of the most popular races, including humans, worgen, and now both kinds of elves? Buy stock in this class, folks.
I originally thought that the boring new abilities in the Warrior class preview would hurt them. And it will hurt them slightly. But no one will notice while rolling their Worgen and Blood Elf warriors and enjoying the fixed rage mechanic, now will they? A perennial popular class will only get more popular.
And here we come to the biggest problem. What we've heard about Cataclysm so far has given us no indication that the value of hybrids will decrease. Players as a community are already picking up on this, which explains why the current druid population is so high for a class that can only be played by 2 races and can't see it's own hard-earned armor 90% of the time. As a 3-role hybrid, and the only one that can do both melee and ranged dps, you have a recipe for popularity in a land of dual-specs and little to no downsides to playing a hybrid. GC even hinted that Druids might be the only other class to get Blessing of Kings!
They will also remain the strongest healers once Paladins lose dominance of tank-healing, kitty dps will be easier, bear will be more interesting, and moonkin will finally get a non-spec-breaking version of Eclipse. Plus, the new abilities are pretty cool. Add in that fucking Worgen can be Druids, and iiiit's ovaaaaah for most of the other classes.
The saddest thing about how giant this number is? The fact that it's such a small increase over the current number! The class is getting some great new abilities and almost no clear nerfs. Holy Paladins will become more popular as their toolbox increases and they get raid healing capabilities. Retribution Paladins will pick up a number of refugees from other dps classes, particularly DKs and Warriors, who have been watching them in jealousy for months now. And though there are hints that Prot Paladins will be brought back into line with other tanks, it's hard to dispel the long-running perception of them as the best tanks, the easiest to play, and the ones with the highest and most dependable aoe threat. Plus, they certainly won't be the weakest tanks, and if they are, you can just play dps or healing instead!
The only saving grace here is that Worgen can't play them - though Tuaren will be added to the list, which can only increase their popularity.
Yes, I am predicting that about a third of all players will main either a druid or paladin. Have fun forming raids in 2011, kids!
So what does Blizz need to do between now and Cataclysm to prevent a disasterous healer shortage and gross class imbalance?
1) Change the healing mana "nerf" to make it more palatable.
2) Better PR for the increased importance of mana for healers and the cleanse changes. We need video demonstrations of how the game will be changed to compensate and keep these changes from being nerfs, and we need some social engineering changes in the game mechanics to take some of the responsibility for failure away from healers, at least in the public perception. Perception matters.
3) Increase the "hybrid tax" in some way so that players don't flock to Paladins and Druids for being the only 3-role classes in the game (and top-tier at some of those roles at the same time!). It doesn't need to be limited to the current (failing) damage tax. Change around buffs so that hybrids provide fewer of them, rather than more, compared to pures. Make sure hybrids have the weakest CC, and make it very well-known to the WoW population how much CC will actually matter - with demonstrations. Give some extra utility to pure and 2-role classes that the 3-role classes will lack. Continue to suppress the druid population by keeping them from seeing their gear in bear/cat/moonkin. Stop letting Paladins be so goddamn powerful while being so easy to play.
4) Allow Worgen and Elves to be Shaman, and simplify totems even more.