Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Population vs. Design, and the importance of perception

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.

Pictured: the Paladin District in Dalaran

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.


Shawn said...


I hate being the one to always rebutt your pally bashing, because that is what it seems like it has been for a while now.

But I will give it a shot:

Retpally's : Everyone (save you) understands that ret is HORRIBLY weak in PvP. To see a ret above 1800 Rating is just flat out flabbergasting.

PvE, yes I will admit, it is more simplistic to play than most classes. Right now, its easy to faceroll to 3.5-4k in heroics. Yes, bad players tend to roll into this spec. That is because they cant be bothered to learn something different. But there are PLENTY of pallies out there that are more than just facerollers. It seems you are hard pressed to realize that (or even give just a little bit of ground).

LOLWUT you want me to raid heal?

Holy can do some raid *assist* but it is just that. We are tank healers, and that is it (at least right now). Again, may be a simplistic style, but it is extremely limiting.

Argueably the best tanks out there right now (and slightly op, I will give you that). Does a tank need to have endlessly complicated rotations like a DK tank? NO. A warrior tank has the 969 rotation to some degree too. So bash on the warriors a bit as well. And let me tell you, I have seen far worse tanks from the DK class than pallies. Complicated =/= good design. Complicated = complicated.

(and I am being a little over zealous, but geez man, if you want to have a conversation, lets have a conversation. It seems like you just want to hammer pallies, instead of discuss what might be done).

On the issue of pally population - when you can fill 3 roles, and fill them WELL, of course there is going to be a slight imbalance. Give DK's a healing spec and I would bet 10 to 1 that DK's would balance out in pop with pallies and druids.

Shawn said...

Ohh, I would like to add in, if it is not clear above, that because the specs of pallies are COMPLETELY different from one another, you could (and should) split each tree and compare it on its own. Put ret with the DPS'ers, Holy with the Healers, Prot with the Tanks.

And you know what? Ret actually has a LOWER representation than any of the other DPS classes.

Prot is hard to eval because druids and dk's tank in trees that also do dps.

Holy is about 1% above comparative specs on other healers.

We actually DONT outstripe other players of similar specs. We just outstripe other classes because we can do all three.

Ixobelle said...

One of our guild's previous MTs has finally given up on his warrior, and tanks on his paly now.

It's not because paly tanking is *easy*, but because warrior tanking is hard.

I don't know how else to say it. He's not a baddie, but so much can go wrong on a warrior that just never comes up on his paly. Prot pallies have to be killed twice, right? Like, automatically. No popping shield wall... it's just like a permanent Guardian Spirit (I honestly am not positive, but that's how another paly described it to me).

If you want to go back and farm old content, good luck with your warrior. You get like one lame heal (FR), and last stand. Palies, if alone in a dungeon, can bubble, heal themselves back up to full, and kill shit.

It's a little silly.

Hatch said...

@Shawn: Thanks for such a large and thoughtful comment. My intent is to make fun of bad paladins, not *all* paladins. I'm getting that my intent isn't coming across, so I'll work on writing it better so it does come across. Many paladins are good. The bottom line is that it's a good class. But it also attracts masses of baddies. It's also a known fact that the majority of wow players do raids, but a pretty small percentage even bother with arenas, especially at a high enough level for comp to actually matter. A lot of classes (including Pallies) are bad in arena right now. But they are fine in random BGs and great in raids.

As for complicated = good design, I never said that it was. Severe imbalance is what is not good design. And when one class is much harder to play to reach the same result, you've made a game design mistake that is going to effect population.

And as for paladins having higher pops because they do 3 roles: there needs to be some tradeoff to having extra roles. Or else Paladins are just plain a better class than, say rogues. That would be bad game design. Right now, being a hybrid not only gives you flexibility, but similar or better performance and more buffs than a pure class, and similar utility. There is no tradeoff at all.

Also, your argument kind of deflates if you look back at the charts from my earlier post on population and see that Ret Paladins *alone* nearly match the numbers of some pure dps classes as a whole. Also, there are 20% more prot paladins than prot warriors. There is a fundamental imbalance here besides the natural results of appealing to all 3 sets of people. Even within each role, paladins are at the top of the appeal-ometer.

Hatch said...

And now that I've read your second comment, Shawn...we read the same charts and came to totally different conclusions.

I find it scandalous that Ret Paladins alone are so close to the *entire* rogue or warlock populations right now. You look at the same number from the perspective that one spec of one class should be just as popular as all 3 specs of another class put together. That is not something we see eye-to-eye on.

Also, I did make suggestions about how to fix it. Would you think it was a bad idea to:

1) Move most paladin group buffs to pure classes.
2) make the duration of consecrate much shorter than its cooldown so prot paladins are no longer the only tank that can lay down constant aoe with no gaps?
3) Make the ret rotation at least a bit more interesting, for instance by causing CS to apply a holy damage buff and make some of the other abilities into interesting choices depending on the circumstances?