I recently made a giant poopy - I mean, post about population in Cataclysm. Now I'd like to go into why I think population matters.
There is some truth to the statement that forming a raid full of druids and paladins would be easy because they can cover all of the roles. Is it really that bad if a few classes dominate the population?
Yes. Yes it is. But why?
One issue is buff stacking. If you can cover most of the group buffs with only paladins and druids, but no other 2-class combo can, then those too classes have too much group utility. Another issue is comparative class advantages: there are going to be other benefits to other classes as well. For instance, my group would have it a lot easier in phase 1 Lich King if we had a rogue for Tricks of the Trade > FoK on the ghouls. Other examples include Death Grip (Malygos), Misdirect, and the strength of block tanks on Anub. If both your tanks are Paladins, your raid is not going to be as effective as if you had two tanks of different classes.
The last, and most important one, is perception. What the game seems to be matters as much as what it actually is, and how players feel is more important than what they are told is true.
The easiest example of why perceptions matters pops up every time a new patch comes out. A nerf to a class makes many players of that class feel weaker, and perceive their class as weaker, even if they were overpowered before and the nerf simply brought them into line (or even just made them slightly less overpowered!). Players become less happy with their class, and a bunch will even switch “mains” when this happens. I’ll use the case I’m most familiar with: Death Knights.
There was a time (Wrath release until ToC) when the majority of the population believed DKs to be overpowered. In some aspects, they certainly were. This belief was a major factor in their popularity. They are still very strong (outside of arena), but have been nerfed enough that their popularity has dropped precipitously. Every nerf lowered the number of DKs – especially as “mains” – even though they remained a powerful class. But being perceived as “nerfed” hurt them.
DKs also lost ground for being perceived as the weakest tank after they were nerfed in the ToC patch. They had been basically required for hardmodes in Ulduar, and were rebalanced in response to that. Their popularity fell even more as they became the only tanks without a block mechanic in the era of the auto-LFD-omatic. Facerolling heroics is a lot easier as a tank when you block big chunks of all the little hits coming your way. DKs are still good tanks overall, but they are harder to heal in heroics.
Death Knights are still a strong class: one of the highest raid DPS classes, effective in BGs, bringing a good mix of buffs, and effective tanks on any content that matters. But their population and time played is dropping precipitously because they are perceived as weaker than their competition.
On the flip side, Paladins have seen a surge in popularity from which the game itself has yet to recover. In the pre-Wrath patch Blizzard completely and utterly broke the game, making Ret Paladins into 2-shotting-during-a-stunlock Battleground GODS (at level 70. Few cared that they would be balanced at 80 and against resilience). This along with the efforts to balance all 4 tank classes and the perception that Paladins were the best AoE tanks (thank you Shattered Halls) led to an explosion in Paladin population. Let’s not even get into how much dual specs benefit them.
It sucks to feel like a sucker. It sucks to feel weak. It sucks to walk around Dalaran and have every other character you see be a Paladin or Druid. It sucks to watch groups fill up with half pink names. It sucks to have any group that is forming go out of its way to get a Paladin when none happen to be around. It sucks to hear “oh we need to get a Paladin for XX reason” or “Yay, 3 paladins!” in raid chat or vent.
And it really sucks to perceive that Paladins are better than all of the other classes, and to see everyone but Paladins agree with you (but they keep playing their Paladins no matter how much they fish-for-buffs-I-mean-complain, of course). Their population is out of control in part because they are perceived to be so much better.
It sucks to try a Paladin myself and realize that they are more effective and easier to play in every way. That’s right, I’ve got a new Paladin at level 80, currently grinding out triumph emblems in heroics. I’ve played him pretty much equally between Ret and Prot. In both of those roles, he is so much easier to play than any of my other characters, while being effortlessly effective. FCFS and Clash Resolution and 9-6-9-6-9 (for those of you who are familiar with Paladins) are simple to master. As a tank, the AoE packs stick to you like glue, and the short cooldowns and constant nature of Consecrate mean that you’re never caught without a strong response (unlike a DK who just used up his runes or a warrior with Thunderclap on cooldown, which btw GC used to rub their inferiority to Paladins in their faces here). I never have to worry about putting up diseases or combo points or rage or runic power. I just hit buttons. It’s ridiculous.
Regardless of where things are numerically or rationally: when players perceive imbalance, they will be less happy with your game. Their experience will be tarnished. Blizzard shouldn’t just rely on what the numbers say: they should put more stock in the playerbase’s perceptions.
Right now, the game is reasonably close to balance, if you look at it as a spreadsheet (not counting population numbers). But many players perceive some classes as being stronger, some as being easier, and the game being easier as a whole. These specific topics dominate the conversation about the game. It’s not good for your game, Blizzard.
Players do not like feeling like they are being punished for playing a class that is most appealing to them while it looks to them like Paladins and Druids enjoy advantage after advantage. And population matters a lot of each player’s enjoyment, because when they see players flock to a few seemingly advantaged classes, it makes them feel like a sucker, or feel forced to switch classes as well. Aside from that, the game gets kind of boring when you see the same class over and over. Forming a raid or recruiting is also a problem, because you are more likely to end up with another character of a class you already have enough of, and have trouble finding the classes that would help your raid the most (with utility, buffs, lack of gear competition, etc.)
Bottom line: population matters - and perception matters – to how fun your MMO is for the players.