Of Talents and Cookie-Cutting

Other than a flippant, out of context quote post on the subject, I have not spent much time musing on Ghostcrawler’s December 8th DevBlog entitled Seeing the Forest for the Talent Trees. In my eyes, there really is not anything to muse over – once you acknowledge the notion that saying something is “bad game design” simply means you disagree with a subjective decision but want to sound like you are an authority on the subject, there is not much left to say.

However, Doone at TR Red Skies touched on a certain subject that is so perpetually misunderstood that I begin to imagine people are being dense on purpose:

I’ll be bookmarking this blog for the day GC learns that there *will* be a best build with the new talent system.  The fact that he’s got himself deluded into thinking they’ve got the problem solved is shocking.

The problem never was there being an ideal setup for a specific encounter. The problem was there being one ideal setup for every encounter. What really is the value of a talent system in which you spend an hour looking stuff up, set your talents, and then don’t change them until the next expansion? That is what they are combating here.

To be honest, the problem is probably vague terminology. Just like people define “casual” in different ways – does it mean time played, or level of commitment, or both? – the term “cookie-cutter” has come to encompass both “uniformity” and “theory-crafted best.” There is a nuance there that seems to escape most people. As Ghostcrawler says in the blog concerning the Warrior MoP-era talents:

“On a fight like Baelroc (one boss, no adds), Bladestorm and Shockwave probably aren’t competitive with Avatar. We’re okay with that, because on Beth’tilac (lots of adds) they definitely can be and it will depend a lot on your play style and the role you have in the fight.”

If one talent load-out is better on one boss than another, or in one situation over another, it ceases to be cookie-cutter in any meaningful way. Houses in a suburban subdivision are cookie-cutter; each house is identical in every way. A 5-iron is not a cookie-cutter golf club to a 3-wood; they have different roles, uses, benefits, and drawbacks. The Wrath/Cata-style talents are cookie-cutter because there is only one way to spec as Arms, only one way to spec as Fury, etc (assuming you desire max DPS). In MoP, you can be a Fury warrior with Shockwave if that would be useful, or Bladestorm, or Avatar.

Here is Bashiok:

The difference is that right now there’s a way you spec your character, and then there’s maybe a handful of “Ok now you can do whatever you want with these 4 leftover points.” Those points are leftover because they ultimately don’t matter. You don’t really even need to spend them to do well. It’s not a good system, and the few leftover ‘choices’ don’t feel awesome because… well they aren’t, they aren’t awesome, which is why they’re unimportant points.

With the new system we give you everything you really need automatically, and talents are going to be more interesting ‘style’ and utility choices than a bunch of stat and damage increases. The choice comes, hopefully, from choosing talents that appeal to how you like to play or what you think would be particularly useful for a specific boss, fight, or encounter, and the ability to swap around points freely while out in the world help reinforce that.

I still fully expect for people to devise optimum builds for specific situations, but there’s a difference between optimum and no choice at all.

I think once you see the majority of talent choices you’ll understand a bit more why these choices aren’t really going to be bombarded by optimum build mentality. The choices just don’t have a clear optimal because most of the choices don’t lead to direct output increases.

If that doesn’t seem to be the case then we need to work on it more.”

And here was their response to the cookie-cutter argument back during the Class Q&A in November:

A: Since so many of the talents focus on survivability, movement, and utility we are skeptical that there will ever be a talent build that is the perfect build for every PvE fight in the game. It is likely that as players learn specific encounters, each spec finds an ideal set of talents for that encounter. Those will be the “cookie cutter” builds. However, that will mean that players are interacting with the system and picking a unique set of customizations on a frequent basis. This is a vast improvement over a system that is solved once by a dps spreadhseet and then everyone copies that build once and ignores their talents for the rest of the expansion. In addition, there will be likely disagreement over which talents are best for which encounters.

That is the nuance. Moreover, the way they are setting up the talents makes it more likely that you can choose the 95% optimum + fun set of talents over the 100% optimum + unfun ones. If Blizzard gets to that point, well, Mission Accomplished.

On a final note:

I am *so* over talent trees. I understand the function they have in the scheme of things, but there has got to be a better way to give the feeling of progression than giving us a talent/skill point to slap into +1% damage or other vague, ill-defined “options.”

I have been playing Dungeon Defenders recently, for example, and while it is “fun” being rewarded with skill points each time I level, on an intellectual level it feels asinine. I don’t know how 3 extra points in run speed actually impacts my gameplay. Is that 3% faster? Or can I run through a hallway 3 seconds faster? I want to move more quickly, but there is seemingly little direct relationship between the two. Nevermind how much better +3 Tower Attack Speed could conceivably be (less need to run places because towers kill faster). How the hell am I supposed to make an informed decision, especially when respeccing if prohibitively expensive (if offered at all) by design?

Here is my prediction: once people play Diablo 3, it will be downright painful going back to dumbass talent trees. I already cannot stand games that force you to make a decision on two options you cannot possibly know beforehand. Which do you want? The Kmakljfamns or the Hiagsguygag? I dunno, let me play with them first goddammit and I’ll let you know.

P.S. It’s a trick question. If you don’t pick the Piohqjasbhf, you’re a noob.

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Posted on January 6, 2012, in Commentary, WoW and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think it depends on whether you consider the main problem with cookie-cutting that it makes a lot of characters identical in terms of abilities, or that it encourages people to just copy and paste what some theorycrafter is saying instead of actually looking at their talents themselves.

    It’s true that there’ll be less samey-ness with the MoP system as people will switch talents for PvE, PvP, different encounters etc. But they’ll most likely still consult the theorycrafters about what’s best, only now they’ll have to do it more because they’ll have to look up talent specs for a variety of different purposes. To me that’s not more interaction with the system, that’s just more numbers-related busywork.

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    • I believe that relationship is backwards: cookie-cutter exists because people are interested in the optimal, not the other way around. The only reason that Elitist Jerks doesn’t exist for Rift is because not enough people care, rather than Rift (or other such games) having a less theorycraftable design. In fact, as long as there exists two mutually exclusive talents that have any measurable impact on gameplay, “cookie-cutter” will implicitly exist.

      So while I agree that the people who stress out about optimal in every situation will be getting a massive amount of busywork in MoP raiding, I ultimately think that is the best way to go with talents (short of them simply going away).

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