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[Cyberpunk 2077] Terrible Design

Cyberpunk 2077 has undergone a ton of changes since its disastrous launch. I was not keeping track of everything they fixed and tweaked, but suffice it to say, there was a lot. Some of which was immediately indicative of… well, idiot designers. That may sound harsh but let me give you an example: there is an early talent (Dagger Dealer) that allows you to throw your equipped knives. What was missing from the launch of the game until literally February of this year was any way to retrieve your thrown knives. Some designer thought this talent up and some programmer put it into a game where there are legendary knives, and no one thought that maybe losing them forever was a bad idea? Again, this was fixed in version 1.5 which I am currently playing. But the fact that it was even a thing outside of alpha is mind-boggling.

What I am coming to understand is that Dagger Dealer is a symptom of deeper issues.

Historical screenshot for the lols. In 1.5 they magically come back after a few seconds.

The overall leveling system is just a mess. You gain XP and gain character levels, which grant you Perk points and occasionally Attribute points. The latter are very important because they determine the maximum level of perk you can select within that Attribute. Additionally, each Attribute has multiple Skill Trees associated with it. So for example, the Reflexes Attribute contains the Assault, Blades, and Handguns trees, each of which contain 17-20 Perks that can have multiple tiers.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Each Skill tree has its own XP meter that increases by utilizing that specific Skill in various ways. The more you use Handguns, the more Handgun XP you generate, and eventually you work your way down the reward track up to the limit of the Attribute. The rewards are usually little enhancements (Recoil reduction on Handguns, etc) but sometimes they are Perk points which you can actually assign anywhere. While that could lead to some interesting decisions wherein you start farming Blade XP to generate extra Perk points to put into Handguns or whatever, the emphasis should not deviate from the word “farm.” Because that is what it takes.

All of that may sound complicated, but none of it is particularly interesting.

I could live with all the overcomplicated shenanigans, but what I cannot stand is a Talent/Perk/Skill system with so few synergies. It is like the designers didn’t even try. I scoured the various trees and the closest thing to interesting that popped up was a Reflexes 8 Perk in the Blades tree called Stuck Pig that increases Bleed duration by 3/6/9 seconds. That is notable not because it’s actually any good, but because there is no “inflicted by a Blade” qualifier to it. Some things other than Blades inflict Bleed, so that would be an interesting choice and/or build to work towards if Bleeds were your thing. If instead you put any Perk points into Handguns, well, all of them turn off the moment you equip anything else.

And, Jesus Christ, don’t get me started on the crafting system. Because I’m going to anyway.

Crafting is governed by the Technical Ability Attribute and subsequent perks in the Crafting Skill tree. The most important ones are those Perks that unlock the crafting of Rare (5), Epic (12), and Legendary (18) items. In many games, there is always a tension between player crafting and found loot: A) if crafting is better, why search for loot, vs B) if loot is better, why engage with crafting at all. Cyberpunk kicks this up a notch with Iconic gear – these are weapons/armor with unique effects that you can continually upgrade… provided you dump a bunch of Attribute points into Technical Ability. If you don’t, those Iconic items might be good for a mission or two before trash drops start dealing more damage.

A bargain at no price.

Aside from that, crafting largely sucks. You need to purchase weapon/armor “specs” from vendors to unlock the ability to craft that item in that specific tier. Just because you can craft a Rare sniper rifle does not mean you can craft the Epic version of the same sniper rifle, even if you unlocked Epic crafting via Perks. Also, the spec for that Sniper Rifle costs 75,000 credits which is just about what it costs to just purchase the Legendary version of that Sniper Rifle from the same vendor. At a certain point you can farm practically infinite amounts of credits via crafting anyway (purchase components, craft X gun, sell to vendor, cycle vendors), but the point is that the system as a whole makes no fucking sense. What was the harm with a more reasonable weapon spec cost? Woohoo, I get a “cheap” Epic Sniper Rifle by dumping Attribute and Perk Points into a tree that does not otherwise enhance my ability to deal damage with said Sniper Rifle. Christ, I bet that I would deal more damage with a trash-tier Sniper Rifle and those points spent in Reflexes instead.

By the way, Cyberpunk does feature a Respec button. The hilarious thing – in a comedy of errors sort of way – is that it only refunds Perk points, not Attribute points. Thus even though I am 40 hours deep into the game and realize how terrible Crafting has been for me, none of it matters because I can’t shuffle many of those points elsewhere because I’m limited based on Attributes, not Perks. I guess there is an argument that people would game the system by switching to a full Crafting build, upgrade all their shit, get infinite money, and then swap back to a weapon-specific build, but come on.

Know what else is disappointing? The cyberware parts of Cyberpunk. The game is predicated on body enhancements and everyone certainly looks the part. But the thing you find out after browsing a few Ripperdocs is that all the enhancements are… just random buffs locked behind Attribute gates. Sometimes you will find a common-tier upgrade not locked behind such a gate, but the vast majority are tied to your character’s Body or Reflexes Attribute, which means a Technical Ability/Intelligence character (cough) doesn’t have much to gain by cyberware. Which is really fucking bizarre, right? Compare that to how Deus Ex handles things – augments grant gameplay-changing abilities and are otherwise a big deal. In Cyberpunk, they are non-choices.

One of the few “interesting” cyberwares, and it disables your ability to use grenades. Because reasons.

Ultimately, that is the biggest disappointment of all: everything in Cyberpunk (outside of dialog) feels like a non-choice. Can you “choose” to build your character around using Shotguns and Katanas for roleplaying purposes? Sure. Place your Attribute and Perk points in the corresponding slots. But none of that is interesting. And to me, there is no such thing as an uninteresting choice – there are choices and mere decisions. You decide to use Shotguns, and everything else follows. Notwithstanding the banality of having to decide on a specific weapon to use in the first place, there is no room for synergy choices within Skill trees or trying different strategies once Attribute points have been committed.

I am not certain this part of Cyberpunk 2077 is fixable. Being able to Respec Attribute points would help, or perhaps granting more Attribute points overall. Perks would have be radically reworked to introduce synergies though, and I’m not certain designers who had to wait a year and half to noodle on how to fix throwing knives is up to the task.

Paladins Are Boring

Is there a more boring class in WoW than paladins?

This question has been fermenting in my mind for quite some time now, and it’s a rather depressing one as someone who has had a paladin “main” for damn near a decade. It isn’t a “grass is always greener” issue either, or even a “Retribution brings nothing that a Holy paladin couldn’t” issue. The issue is just straight-up soggy cardboard class design.

I am primarily speaking towards Retribution, as that is what I level and play as most of the time. And it’s mind-numbingly boring. Judgment, Crusader Strike, Exorcism… wait for procs. Sometimes a long string of connected procs appears, and I pretend like I’m having fun for 20 seconds. It never works though, because none of my attacks feels like it has any weight behind it. Part of that could be because every special attack sounds like I’m squeezing water out of a sponge.

Then you get to paladin abilities. Avenging Wrath was the peak of Retribution design, or any paladin design, really – everything else has been downhill. Every button on my bar is defensive. And not like “cool defensive cooldown,” just straight boring damage reduction most of the time.

  • Hammer of Justice. “Trinket this and win” button.
  • Word of Glory. An “I LOSE” button.
  • Lay on Hands. Full heal. Neat.
  • Divine Shield. Aka Bubble-Hearth.
  • Cleanse. Okay?
  • Divine Protection. Damage reduction, wheee.
  • Hand of Protection. Ghetto Divine Shield.
  • Hand of Freedom. “Dispel me” disco ball.
  • Emancipate. For when Hand of Freedom is dispelled.
  • Avenging Wrath. The one legit ability.
  • Hand of Sacrifice. Soooo useful, Blizzard, thanks.

The talent tree is also incredibly sad:

  • Tier 1: Remember when paladins were actually mobile? Now they aren’t!
  • Tier 2: Remember when Retribution had PvP utility? Now they don’t!
  • Tier 3: Remember when there was a cool interaction between Sacred Shield & Flash of Light?
  • Tier 4: Straight-up useless.
  • Tier 5: Want a cooldown for your cooldowns, or proc for your procs?
  • Tier 6: Have another button that you press once and forget to press again.
  • Tier 7: YOUR ULTIMATE ABILITY IS… hey, let’s make Divine Storm not suck.

Glyphs? Just look at them. They’re total garbage. Damage reduction or more healing. Wait, wait… one of them increases the damage on ONE ability, but only for the second mob you hit. Which is just fucking fantastic, exactly what I was looking for. Where’s the glyph that completely changes your leveling rotation, like the priest’s Glyph of Mind Harvest?

Find me a more boring class for leveling, for farming, for PvP. When I get on my Death Knight alt, it’s like 10 years of the hopes and dreams of paladins everywhere, condensed in playable form. “Here’s damage reduction… and a stun break/stun immunity!” “Here’s spell damage reduction… and CC immunity!” Look at Tier 7 talents for DKs. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

…they are all goddamn abilities from the Lich King! That feels amazing and gets you pumpped to hit max level. Where is that cool Uther or Tirion feeling in paladin talents? Nowhere. Total garbage.

When I play my warrior, I feel excited because I’ll basically be able to Charge every mob. When I play my DK, I feel excited because I can Death Grip every mob. When I play my rogue, I feel excited because I can fucking teleport behind every mob (seriously, Cloak & Dagger is amazing for leveling). When I play my druid, I feel excited because I’m playing a nuanced class that some designer actually gave two shits about because whoa, look at all the things I can do.

The more I think about it, the more it feels like the paladin class was transplanted from another game entirely. It doesn’t fit WoW anymore, assuming it ever did. The niche it fulfills is “all these buttons are for other people” when the game has been about all the cool individual things you can do for the last three expansions. In fact, every other class has so many individual things they can do that they don’t need paladin assistance anymore.

I haven’t felt excited about paladins since Wrath, really. Not because there were moments when Retribution was overtuned – although it was glorious for a while there – but because it felt like there was actually nuance to the gameplay. Hand of Freedom broke stuns. If you cast Flash of Light on yourself when the 6-second shield from Sacred Shield was up, it was almost always a crit. There was some interplay between abilities back then.

Paladins need an(other) overhaul. Or, at least Retribution does. There’s nothing retributive about them. Too many of the Ret abilities serve no function to the paladin him/herself nor hinder enemies in any way. Again, if that’s supposed to be the paladin schtick, it’s a dumb one for the way the game is currently designed.

Want some suggestions? Invert the Hand spells for Retribution for starters. Hand of Freedom becomes Hand of Confinement for enemies. Hand of Protection becomes Hand of Sequestoring, e.g. same exact effect except castable on enemies. Hand of Sacrifice becomes Hand of Punishment, where 30% of the damage you take is dealt to that enemy. Hell, how about inverting Divine Shield to Divine Retribution, so that instead of being immune to everything you simply reflect incoming attacks/spells?

The devs wouldn’t need to give Retribution all these abilities either. Make us choose, if you like. Have it be talent, or gylph, or (sigh) cooldown. Make it so that if you take Hand of Confinement, you can’t cast Hand of Freedom anymore. Something, anything.

I originally chose to play a paladin in WoW because I always found them conceptually interesting as a class in D&D, but disliked the Lawful Good limitations. Being a frontline fighter killing things with a sword of light was cool. And that concept can still be cool. Remember Seal of Blood? Conceptually cool.

Tirion. Uther. The Ashbringer. Did you feel anything from those names, and if so, were those feelings at all comparible to the feeling evoked from WoW paladins? From where I’m sitting, whatever class Tirion and Uther actually belong to, it sure as hell ain’t paladin.

On the Other (Cloven) Hand

First, a correction. I have been informed in the comments of my previous post that one can turn on Elective Mode in the option menu to turn Diablo 3’s talent system into what I had envisioned previously. Namely, pooling all your abilities together and picking out any combination of 6 at your discretion.

If accurate, that is the system I can (and want to) get behind.

I saw in the Witch Doctor the ability to recreate my nostalgic Necromancer of twelve years ago – spiders from jars and zombie dogs replacing skeletons and golems – but felt stymied by my apparent inability to drop skills I never intended to use with any regularity for the ones I would. It seemed as though I had to choose between maximizing my voodoo army and being able to actually destroy barrels on demand; the bottled arachnids cared not for my entropic war with all material things, and I’d be damned if I could find a way to actually use whatever random weapon I happened to be carrying around at the time.

It is thus possible that my entire original impression was colored by my ignorance of the Elective Mode feature¹. I might suggest it is partially Blizzard’s fault for hiding the light under a bushel in the first place, but nevermind.

What I wanted to mention today that I did not before, is Diablo 3’s Auction House and the effects on the game proper. Simply put, I think Blizzard is riding the very cusp between brilliance and disaster.

It took me a while to even find the Auction House interface at all, and as a result I did not use it until my second playthrough – it requires you to be logged out of any individual character, which I suppose saves Blizzard the bandwidth of people idling in-game. Between vendors who sell random magic items for ~1500g, the normal sort of loot hauls from furious clicking, and the Artisans (e.g. Blacksmith) allowing you to break down magic items to craft new ones, I cannot say that I felt especially deficient in my solo gearing. I suppose that is not especially praiseworthy, seeing as how screwing that up would defeat the entire purpose of this sub-genre, but there it is.

Once you taste the AH though, there is no going back. Unfortunately.

Oh my.

There are a couple things going on in that picture worth noting. The weapon on the right was the one that my Barbarian killed the Skeleton King with after ~2 hours of play. The one on the left is so ludicrously overpowered in contrast, it is difficult to put into words. What really stands out though is the +6 Health per kill bonus. As Sullus experienced, that singular stat bonus completely erases all semblance of difficulty from the beta by itself; surprisingly, you end up killing quite a few monsters in Diablo 3, such that a bonus like that amounts to probably six times its value in passive HP regeneration.

The problem is just beginning, though. This rare weapon, which I would have been flipping out about had it dropped for me, can be equipped at level 4. You thought mobs were already discorporating blazingly fast? You haven’t seen anything yet. But wait… there’s more! If you call within the next 30 minutes Since magic items are not Bind on Equip, this clearly ridiculous weapon is something you will be able to use on all of your starting alts moving forward. If you run out of alts, you can simply resell it on the AH or give it to a friend or whatever.

All of this is somewhat Old News, of course. But here is the thing.

I feel a stirring in my gilded loins.

I bought the rare sword on the AH for 1000g. In contrast, the vendors will typically try and hawk a +2 Mace of Sucking for nearly twice that amount. Sometimes you can luck out and get some nice items from said vendors, Sullas’s “+HP on kill” rings being a notable example, and sometimes you will find good shit right off the ground. However, even if I concede that this rare weapon was underpriced or a lucky find, my concern is that I am no longer dependent on RNG monster drops. And that puts me right back into Torchlight territory wherein I went 20+ hours without upgrading my weapon. Without the food pellet, or one worth munching on, I have little interest in continuing pressing the lever.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed having the AH because I enjoy doing AH things in any game. But I can also clearly see a possible future in which the AH amounts to “cheat codes” that bypasses all the fun limitations of the game proper. And, unfortunately, I do not possess the personality that is capable of handicapping myself when a more efficient strategy is discovered. If I can get all my upgrades from the AH, I will get them all from the AH. Perhaps it won’t matter in the aggregate as long as I am experiencing some kind of gear progression (which Torchlight lacked). I dunno.

So… we will see how this shakes out on the 15th and the weeks following.

¹ Of course, the “baby WoW” criticism is still both applicable and concerning.

Rethinking Diablo’s Day 1 Purchase

[Edit: Impressions below were highly colored by my incorrect assumptions about D3’s talent system. See comments or my follow-up post for more info.]

Looking back, I am not sure exactly what I expected when it came to the Diablo 3 beta.

All I know is that this wasn’t it.

Am I blinking through tears of nostalgia, or is shit really this blurry?

Let me give a quick preface here. Over the course of this weekend, I defeated the Skeleton King (e.g. beat the beta) as a Witch Doctor, Monk, Wizard (co-op), and Barbarian; I only got the Demon Hunter to level 7 before I could not stomach it (both the class and beta) any more. I have played both the original Diablo and Diablo 2 several times, racking up probably around 300+ hours in the latter. I have played and beaten Torchlight, even though I hated its loot system with a passion. Basically, I enjoy hack-n-slash action RPGs as much as the next person.

I was completely underwhelmed by the Diablo 3 beta.

It is difficult for me to enunciate precisely why. Was I expecting too much? Do rose-colored glasses only work in one direction? Have I “grown out” of this particular sub-genre? It is tough to say. Although these specific issues did jump out at me in the ~10 hours of beta gameplay:

Issue 1: Pointless Weapons

After you hit level 2, the type of weapon you choose to equip is 100% irrelevant (with the very glaring exception of Demon Hunters). And I do not mean in a “daggers strike faster than swords but both amount to similar DPS” sort of way. I mean that in a “you will never attack with your weapon again” sort of way.

My Witch Doctor started with a dagger, got a mace, and then a bow, but my left-click was always a blow dart and my right-click an AoE snare. There is never even an option to attack with the pointy or blunt object you are going to be very visually carrying around for the next hundred hours. If the weapon has a higher DPS, you equip it, no questions asked.

You could replace your generic attack button in Diablo 2 with a spell, of course. The trivializing of weapons in Diablo 3 though, is a sign of a deeper, systemic design shift. It reduces the weapon slot to just another generic item slot – reduction to a “stat stick” – and homogenizes all weapon drops into simply “can equip” and “can’t equip” categories. Should I dual-wield or carry around a 2H sword? It is an utterly meaningless distinction in Diablo 3; if weapon speed does impact ability use in some way, perhaps making it hit faster, it does so in a completely oblique fashion.

For me, this also led to a visual dissonance that I was not quite able to shake. Seeing a Barbarian Cleave with a dagger simply looks dumb. Likewise for a monk running around with two glowing swords infused with holy power… that teleport to her back/hips each time an ability fires. And when I see a Wizard running around with a completely non-magical 2H broadsword simply because it somehow makes Magic Missile hit harder than a magic wand…

Oh. Carry on, then.

…nevermind, that looks pretty badass, actually.

Issue 2: “Talents”

I take back every nice thing I said about Diablo 3’s talent system.

In my defense, the last word I had heard was that unlocked abilities were going to go into a “pool,” from which you could select any combination to fit in your available slots. That sounded amazing, nuanced, hitting all the right customization buttons without falling into any design traps. What we got instead is the goddamn Fischer-Price of talent systems, which somehow manages to suck all the fun out of selecting abilities and laughs, laughs, at those wanting to plan ahead.

Essentially, you have six buttons: 1-4 and left/right-click. Your left-click is always going to be one of a handful of abilities. Now, there is “customization” in selecting Runes, which are like the sprinkles that go on your vanilla ice cream cone: they either straight-up buff the given ability or change its nature in subtle or overt ways. But as I was unlocking these abilities and Runes, I always stopped, switched to the new skill for a few mobs, and made a determination of which one I liked better. And then I ceased ever caring about the choice.

To be clear, I don’t like talent trees either. Maybe if I had access to more abilities and Runes the choices would feel more meaningful. Maybe if I encountered more varied enemies/encounters it would cause me to rethink my ability load-outs. But then again… this is a Diablo game. The life expectancy of any individual mob is 0.2 seconds, so in a very real way which ability you are spam-clicking is completely irrelevant.

I dunno, it simply feels weird to look at a class like the Witch Doctor and think, “I’m never going to use Corpse Spiders as my left-click ability,” and then realize six ability unlocks are totally useless for you. I am (probably) always going to pick Zombie Dogs as my Defensive Ability, which similarly collapses 15 squares on that “600+ points of customization!” matrix.

Issue 3: “Baby WoW”

As I was playing co-op with an ex-WoW friend, he uttered “baby WoW” as the description of what these sort of games made him feel like he was playing. And you know what? I’m starting to feel the same. That is kind of the whole schtick of hack-n-slash, of course, the mowing down of corridors of mobs while you mop up the loot debris field in the wake of your passing. It is also tough to criticize spam-clicking in a world of rote ability rotations and the common “strategy” you develop for the execution of the average MMO mob.

At the same time, while I was going through Diablo 3 I could not help but feel somewhat patronized. This Skinner Box lever is completely unadorned. Of course, if you prefer yours fast and loose, then get ready to go to town; I may just turn in for the night instead, if its all the same to you.

Ultimately though, I did have some level of fun with the beta. Co-op was pretty slick with there being zero interruption when people slide in and slide out. Classes like the Monk and Wizard were genuinely fun to play. While I thought the graphics were completely underwhelming (to the point of being ass-ugly) in the first zone, the actual dungeon looked remarkably better. The physics in the game were amusing enough to keep the illusion of dynamic battles for the most part.

Bust out those 3D glasses.

The answer to the $64,000 $60 question though – is Diablo 3 still a Day 1 purchase? – is a lot more fuzzy than it was before this weekend. If I did not personally know a few people who are still getting this Day 1, people I would like to play co-op with eventually, I’d be inclined to wait a few months for the first price drop. I suppose I still have three weeks or so to mull it over.

Chances are I’m going to need all three of those weeks to decide.

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.

Warlocks as the MoP Baseline

If you look at nothing else regarding the Mists of Pandaria Talent Calculator, browse the warlock section. Having looked at all the classes, it is pretty clear which among them have received the most designer attention. Which is not to suggest this pre-alpha build indicates which classes will be screwed or whatever. I’m simply saying that if the warlock design can be considered a baseline, Blizzard has a very real chance at blowing everyone’s fucking minds.

Demonic Portal alone… here, just let me show you again:

*cue the sound of one jaw dropping*

The sheer number of potential shenanigans boggles the mind. Set this up in a WSG flag room. Set this up in an AV tower. Set this up for your raid team as a handicap accessible ramp for those that struggle moving out of the fire fast enough. Set this up between the goddamn mailbox and AH. Five charges is not a lot, but I bet there will be a Glyph for more.

I don’t want to call a spell like this a “game-changer,” but I am finding it difficult to express what it does in any other terms. So many “new” spells and abilities in WoW are iterations of what came before. Malefic Grasp is the Affliction filler and acts as equal parts Drain Life and Shadow Bolt, with a speeding up of DoT damage innovation. Refreshing, and feels like something Affliction should do. Demonic Portal though is so out of the box that it feels like I have to approach the game in a fundamentally different way, even though it technically is an iteration too (“What if everyone could use a warlock’s Demonic Circle?”).

The rest of the warlock spells/talents show a similar level of left-field thinking. Look at the T3 talent line-up:

  • Spell Drain: Next single-target spell/ability focused at you deals no damage and heals you for half of what it would have dealt. Lasts 4 seconds, 15 second cooldown.
  • Soul Link: Probably same ~X% damage reduction.
  • Sacrificial Pact: Demon sacrifices 50% of its HP to make you immune to damage for 10 seconds. 3 minute cooldown.

I think Spell Drain is going to be redesigned completely by the time Blizzard is through – no way it lasts with a 15 second cooldown – but all three of those are really, really hard choices. Yeah, raiders will probably stick with Soul Link unless the boss has an uber-move you can cheese with Sacrificial Pact, but I’m looking at this from more of a PvP standpoint. Or, hell, what about leveling/soloing old instances/running heroics/etc? Tough choices.

Now, look at T4:

  • Blood Fear: Your Fear is instant, but costs 10% of your maximum health.
  • Burning Rush: Your Life Tap causes you to move 25% faster for 8 seconds.
  • Dark Bargain: Absorbs damage equal to 20% of your maximum health, lasts 30 seconds. Any shield remaining when the spell expires is dealt to you in damage. 30 second cooldown.

When I read this tier, I forgot these talents were from WoW; it felt like I was reading off some Dragon Age: Origin interpretation of a warlock. In a good way. These choices are more… warlock-y than warlocks have been in WoW since their inception. Before this, there was what? DoTs and Life Tap? Outside of the class quest to unlock the Succubus, I felt there was always a bit of weird, thin line between mages and warlocks. DoTs + pets vs nukes, sure, but once DoTs are up the warlock simply nukes too. And there never seemed to be much conceptual distance between Destruction warlocks and Fire mages. Now, with this kind of flavor and direction? Much, much better.

Everything can change between now and the Beta, let alone between the Beta and release (and the hotfixes, and mid-expansion overhauls, etc). But if the remaining classes can siphon off even a fraction of the creative juices oozing from these pre-alpha warlocks, MoP could end up making WoW feel like an entirely new, high fidelity experience to even the most bitter of veterans. I am indeed that impressed.

Thoughts on MoP Paladins


  • Judgement has a 6 second cooldown, 30 yard range baseline. At level 5. Cool.
  • No Auras anymore. Crusader Aura is passive, self-only.
  • Well, Holy paladins get a ridiculous cooldown version of the missing Auras.
  • Blinding Shield has returned as Blinding Light.
  • It will surf through beta, then hotfix-nerfed Day 1.
  • Seriously, Hungering Cold gets a cast time, and another instant mass-AoE spell is designed?
  • Plus, paladins. What’s not to nerf?


  • T1 – Speed of Light is a real oddball cooldown here. Consider that it is another 20% DR on a 1 minute cooldown for Holy, on top of Divine Protection, on top of Divine Shield, on top of Hand of Protection, on top of Devotion Aura (20% less Fire/Frost/Shadow damage, immune to interrupts/Silence for 6 seconds), on top of potentially Ardent Defender*. And you move faster with it up. The Prot version of Speed of Light increases damage done by 10% and is thus the more “raid tank” choice, but what does extra damage and moving faster have in common really? And Ret will skip it to grab the somewhat clunkier Long Arm of the Law. Or potentially Pursuit of Justice depending on how quickly Holy Power expires.
  • T2 – We already tried the 6 second stun on a 30 second cooldown, Blizz. You said it didn’t work. As excited I am about Burden of Guilt, Repentance is really the only logical choice.
  • T3 – /yawn. I want Sacred Shield as a tank, assuming the boosted healing doesn’t evaporate when the bubble pops, but I’m pretty sure Blessed Life will be required all the time, by every spec, everywhere. Constant raid damage, anyone?
  • T4 – Selfless Healer is P-I-M-P. Thank you for bringing back my Ret from Wrath. Besides, it was getting a little dumb that warriors and rogues could heal themselves better/faster than my paladin while leveling.
  • T5 – This whole row needs redesigned.
  • T6 – Ditto this row. Boring.
  • Misc – Blessed Life + Pursuit of Justice is actually a pretty funny talent “combo.” The more you damage a paladin, the faster they run around. Wish they would turn that more into a paladin kit.


  • [Ret] Nothing too terribly different than what we have now, aside from extra polish. For example, Inquisition now lasts 10 seconds per Holy Power, up from 4, making it more Slice n’ Dicey. Exorcism is Ret-only, instant-cast baseline, has no cooldown (!), generates Holy Power, and automatically fires ala DK’s old-school Sudden Doom talent (before it got moved to Unholy). Hrm… they might be intending for Ret to not be able to push the button until it lights up ala Arcane Missiles. Actually, yeah, both say “activate.” Lame.
  • [Prot] /yawn. Could we have a few more passive abilities, Blizzard? Getting activated abilities at 10, 20, and 40 is too much. I might actually have to use a second row of my action bar.
  • [Holy] I don’t roll Holy, but I find those rolling damage reduction cooldowns to be a tad of the ridiculous side.

Overall, I may have gotten a little too excited yesterday over the legitimate 50% snare thing. Especially considering the absolutely batshit crazy insane shenanigans going on in the Warlock department.

Consider yourself foreshadowed.

P.S. Did anyone else notice that mages no longer have Teleport/Portal: Theramore, but Stonard is still on the roster? Blatant Horde favoritism! Unless… unless… Alliance mages can send careless raid/random BG members to Stonard too. In which case: well played, Blizzard. Well played.

*Obviously not all at once, or in that sequence. However… 10 second DivPro, 12 second SoL, 10 second ArdentD, 6 second DevoAura, 8 second DivShield… which leaves you with 14 seconds until DivPro comes back off cooldown. Which you can fill with a 20 second Avenging Wrath, Guardian of Ancient Kings, or you know, actually healing through normal damage.

Paladin Ranged Snare

They did it, they really did it.

*cue We Are the Champions*

Obviously it is on the same row as a 30 second HoJ replacement and the paladin Sheep, both of which are likely to be better picks in a general sense. Obviously it is not game-breaking and who even knows what will be considered “balanced” at level 90. But… my god, gentlemen. To be denied for seven years, to endure the rationalizations as why paladins don’t need a proper snare, and to have this appear at 4 am on a random Wednesday… it is a sweet, sweet release.

A more thorough examination of the newly revised talent trees will have to wait until tomorrow.

P.S. My god, it’s full of stars…

*cue the sound of one jaw dropping*

Character Customization Through Talents

I was really going to leave the talent discussion alone, it being “old news” by now and my having already presented my case. But I keep coming across what seems historical revisionism of sorts when it came to early WoW talents and the number of actually legitimate customization options available. Take, for instance, this passage over at The Babbling Gamer:

[…] When I first played WoW back in 2005, it’s biggest selling point for me was the talent system.  It allowed far more character customization than most MMOs out at the time.  I tried all sorts of things.  I tinkered.  I had fun.  The Burning Crusade felt like a solid improvement on it.  I played with lots of  sub-optimal specs, trying to find the one that was the most fun.  I don’t min/max for effectivity, I min/max for enjoyability.  I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.  I don’t care that I hardly ever use that heal I spent talent points to get and could be doing more damage without. […]

After some digging around Google, I actually found a website that has functioning TBC v2.01 talent calculators. Booting up the Retribution tree and seeing Crusader Strike as the 41-point talent really takes me back… to a time where I apparently enjoyed auto-attacking my balls with a hammer. And 61 talent points to spend! Those will sure come handy… in filling out all these 5-point talent sinks. You see, leveling up and getting a new talent point is fun. Putting said talent point into Rank 3 Conviction (+1% crit rate, 5 ranks) is at no point whatsoever fun.

So with that in mind, I decided to look at the various class trees and basically remove every talent that did NOT change your gameplay in any possible way. Here are some of the results:

TBC paladin talent tree.

How about the mage?

TBC mage talent trees.

The rubric I used to determine whether a talent changed your gameplay was pretty simple:

  • The talent added a button to your hotbar; or
  • The talent changed the way you used a button already on your hotbar.

The paladin case was fairly straight-forward: cooldowns, buffs, and abilities only. Then again, paladins have a lot of bleed-over utility that eventually resulted in the “one-man army” effect of Retribution in early Wrath.

The mage tree was a little less straight-forward. For example, I left Improved Counterspell up because it changed Counterspell from a button you only should push at a certain moment (when the target is casting), to a button that could be cast strategically (to deny spellcasting at certain moments). I left Improved Scorch open because the talent makes you actually include Scorch in your rotation to keep up a vital (raid) debuff, changing your gameplay. Likewise, I left Frostbite open even though it simply gives some of your spells a 15% chance to Freeze (root) your target, because that interrupts your normal spell rotation; instead of just chain-casting Frostbolt, when Frostbite procs you’re encouraged to do a Shatter combo of firing an Ice Lance with a Frostbolt in the air. You may or may not have noticed, but Shatter itself I left covered as a talent sink – even if Shatter did not exist, the damage/time limit of a Frostbite proc would still encourage the Frostbolt/Ice Lance combo. Shatter simply increases the potential damage, just like the overwhelming majority of all the talents in TBC trees.

A question arises though: is choosing between damage talents not a choice? Well… yes and no. The easy answer is the one from the Extra Credits video, which is to say that a choice between +10% Frostbolt damage vs +10% Ice Lance damage is NOT a choice, but a calculation. A problem arose, however, when I considered these two talents from Fallout: New Vegas:

Cowboy + Shotgun Surgeon

Granted, Fallout: New Vegas does not have a talent tree per se; it has a perk system. Every two levels you must choose a perk from an ever-expanding list however, so I consider that roughly analogous. So… is the Cowboy perk a choice or is it a calculation? I just agreed that choosing between +10% damage to two different spells is a calculation, and the Cowboy perk essentially gives me +25% damage to a small number of weapons. And yet I am inclined to say it is a legitimate choice. Why? I consider these sort of talents to be stylistic and/or identity choices. In a game with no formal classes, picking the Cowboy perk is the closest thing you can come to differing “specs” in Fallout. A Gatling laser handles a lot differently than a sniper rifle that handles a lot differently than a revolver. Likewise, an Arcane mage plays differently than a Fire mage that plays differently than a Frost mage.

So, going back to the Babbling Gamer quote, we can zero in on this part:

I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.

What Warsyde has done is essentially used the old talent system to create an entirely new spec. Maybe create an Arcane mage that takes Ignite and casts Fireball instead of Arcane Blast with a little PoM-Pyro action in the wings? Warsyde did not actually mention any specific spec, but a Google searched turned up this gem of a EJ mage theorycraft thread started 10/16/06, talking about an Arcane/Frost hybrid mage grabbing both Spell Power (+50% crit damage) and Ice Shards (+100% crit damage with Frost spells). That sort of thing definitely would have got my juices flowing at the possibilities. So, yes, choices!

And yet… and yet… maybe not.

See, there was never any question that picking a specialization was a choice. And while the number of talents points available in TBC and the various positions in the trees allowed for the creation of “new” specs like the hybrid Arc/Fire or Arc/Frost mage, what were those hybrid specs really? A fire mage with PoM and Arcane Power, and a Frost mage with absurdly large Frostbolt crits, respectively. You were still basically a Fire mage or Frost mage with different activated abilities. And guess what Fire mages?


You can have your PoM-Pyro back.¹

In conclusion, the older WoW talent systems allowed space for unsupported hybrid specs to exist, but in actuality these hybrids were almost always simply normal specs using 1-2 different abilities; an outcome basically indistinguishable from the proposed plan in MoP. The rest of the talent choices, and arguably many of the hybridization ones, simply came down to calculations – Arc/Frost was created simply to abuse +crit damage talents, for example. The only real thing we are losing is the ability to gain a number every other level, and sink that number down into a hole.

And while Warsyde can choose between spamming one spell vs a complex rotation of silly abilities with vague (calculated!) synergy, so can a 0/0/0 mage. How complicated one’s rotation should be is definitely a choice, but not one you make with talents.

¹ Yes, I am aware of Hot Streak procs and their simulated PoM-Pyro-ness. It’s just not the same.

Answering Nils’ Criticism

Nils made a comment in response to yesterday’s post, and I feel a rebuttal is important enough for its own post.

Ok, so in BGs where you can blow people off edges you take typoon. In the others you take Fearie Fire. Was that a hard choice?

Yes. Because I want Typhoon all of the time… but Faerie Swarm could be useful in Arena… but what if I get Dalaran Sewers where the shock value of a Feral druid knocking someone off the edge would be priceless… but endlessly kiting people DK-style would probably be fun too… and hey, would Typhoon be more or less powerful on Magmaw than the AoE root… etc.

The consequences of choosing Typhoon over Faerie Swarm is that you won’t have Faerie Swarm even when there may be a good situation for it. In a raid, there is probably a clear-cut answer of which is more useful, and if it is EotS weekend, then Typhoon would likely be the answer. But that’s not a problem between the Typhoon vs Faerie Swarm choice, it’s a problem with encounter design. And I would still take Typhoon in an encounter where Faerie Swarm is more optimal, as long as Typhoon wasn’t completely useless (i.e. the delta between their usefulness wasn’t too great).

I think everything has been said there. Choices have to have consequences, otherwise they are meaningless. Blizzard repeated attempts to get around this is ridiculous. The reason you have a few choices left in the current talent trees is because it doesn’t matter where you spend your last points!

And it didn’t matter because up until now they were treating the first ~31 talents as “choices” when they really were not. If you are a Ret paladin, you take 3/3 Crusade, period. You take 2/2 Long Arm of the Law, period. And so on. Now, they can give you choices that matter (in the sense I’m talking about), as evident by the druid talents you went over and all the other classes.

You say that there is an optimal, cookie-cutter EJ solution to these problems but I am saying that that is irrelevant. Yes, there will always be an objectively optimal choice assuming the choice has a measurable impact on anything. The only relevant thing though is the distance between the EJ solution and the 2nd best (or 3rd) solution. As long as they are close enough, I can choose which of the two is more fun for me (Typhoon) and still feel happy about that decision even if the “correct” answer is something else. My fun, enjoyment, familiarity, stylistic inclination, ease, etc, will make up the difference.

The only change of note with the new talent trees is that you can change them on the fly. This makes them a mandatory part of the preparation before you do anything of importance (boss fights, arena games, rated BGs …)

Other than every spec of each class having access to cool abilities that were hitherto restricted to individual specs, right? Hell, a Resto druid can have Typhoon and summon treants! Nevermind Assassination rogues with Shadowstep, Arcane mages with Cauterize and Ice Barrier, etc etc. And by removing the ~31 redundant talent “choices” that each spec takes regardless of PvE vs PvP vs leveling vs raiding, this should allow Blizzard to focus on keeping the six actual talent choices we have now interesting and difficult to choose between.

And just based on the rough draft we saw at BlizzCon, I would say they are off to a good start.