The Illusion of Choice

Before this past week, I had not really followed the news about the Mists of Pandaria expansion apart from a mention here or there in my RSS reader.  So now that I am leaving the wow-free zone that I have created for myself, I am trying to catch up on all the tidbits of progress.  I admit, when I first got wind of the expansion I was just as bitter and cynical as the rest of the “kung-fu panda and pokemon” complainers.  I am not sure if it is the long leave, or the news I am reading itself but I am looking forward to it.

Never a Real Choice

One of the big complaints that did manage to invade upon my fortress of wow-less solitude, was the “dumbing down” of the talent trees.  When I first heard the news, like a good chunk of my friends, I was full of rage over them needlessly simplifying a process that already worked “just fine”.  I bemoaned switching to a system that gave up choice in favor of “hand holding”.  My talent trees should be tall and full of many widgets to click on, the way they always were!

I have come to the realization that despite the “illusion of choice” and multiple options, in each tree there was really only one viable path.  There are roughly 68 DeathKnights in my guild, and apart from  no more than a 5 talent difference, each us has almost the exact same blood tanking build.  For each class, and each tree, there has always been one spec agreed upon by the community to be head and shoulders above the rest.  So while it always felt like we had tons of options, in reality if we wanted to play on any serious level, we were going to go with the agreed upon path.

The thing is, this has been the case in every game I have played that has some sort of a talent system.  Rift added a bit more depth to the system, but the same winning combos were there as well.  This was so much the case that between my times playing it, they have added this nifty system that tutors you through speccing into one of these agreed upon paths.  This was a breath of fresh air, since with 9 potential talent trees to juggle per class, plotting a course became extremely arcane.

Freedom to Fail

The point of view I have eventually come around to is one that I would have argued until I was blue in the face a few years back.  In the end, all having a talent tree does is really give a player a chance to screw their character up to the point of being unplayable.  I had a friend, who shall go unnamed that decided to try and build a “Jack of all Trades” hunter in vanilla WoW.  Instead of focusing on one tree and then some secondary talents, he spread his points out evenly trying to pick up the best all all the early talents.

The end result was a character that had no glaring weaknesses, but no real bonuses either.  He could solo just fine, but when it came to running dungeons he lacked the raw damage output needed to support a team effort.  Believe it or not, I have seen many people make this mistake over the years.  The freedom of picking talents, also gives you the freedom to make characters that simply don’t work.  Ultimately the designers have intended us from the start to try and reach those top tier talents. As such when a winning hybrid spec exists it usually gets “fixed” to restore the balance.

Less is More

So in returning to what outraged myself and others, at face value the Deathknight talents are going from 41 points to only 6 points.  Initially like everyone else I thought to myself, my god they are watering these classes down.  Last night I copied my Deathknight out to pandaland and quickly found out that my assumptions were completely wrong.  In truth the new system is going to give us far more personalization while still remaining viable.

Just like with Cataclysm, when you first open an empty talent tree you are asked to choose a specialization.  Previously this just gave you whatever the signature ability was for your class.  Keeping with the Deathknight analogy, choosing Blood gave me Heart Strike, Veteran of the Third War, Blood Rites, and Vengence.  However my talents gave me all the other abilities that made tanking as blood viable, namely all those handy “oh shit” cooldowns.

What it took me a long while to understand, is that in Mists of Pandaria, when you choose a specialization you are essentially receiving with one single click that previous “optimal spec”.  Instead of getting those signature abilities from before, I receive 17 active and passive abilities that made up the golden path everyone chose.  What this really does, that has never existed to this point is set a clear baseline of abilities that one can expect every possible spec to have.  This completely takes the guess work of whether or not a player has some critical ability out of the mix.

Fluffy Goodness

Basically the talent points are now a series of decisions that occur at level 15, 30, 45, 60, 75, and 90.  Each of these decisions changes the flavor of your abilities, or adds new functionality to your class.  When I switched my Deathknight from Human to Worgen, the thing I really missed was the Every Man for Himself racial.  Previously in Wrath it was not terribly difficult to build a viable tanking spec that included the ability Lichborne.  However in Cataclysm, you had to give up some high threat talents and utility to get it.

With the MoP talents at each level you are basically making a choice and in essence sacrificing other abilities.  Most of the tiers, for the classes I have seen all are similar abilities with a similar theme.  In the case of Lichborne, I can take it as my level 30 pick, but I am giving up on having Anti-Magic Zone and the brand new Purgatory ability.  None of the choices really take away from my viability, but each shapes the flavor of my character.

So while at face value it looks like you have less freedom, in reality I personally feel like I have more than ever.  I cannot count the number of times I have respecced just to change one or two points.  That was the only real control I had, and in general I have had less than 5 points that could realistically be juggled.  This time I am getting to make 6 choices, each of which has some pretty significant ramifications.  I can be a tank with Bladestorm, or a Deathknight with AOE Deathgrip (Gorefiend’s Grasp), or Combat Rogue with Shadowstep.  I get to make these fun choices knowing that I am not trading my viability for flavor.

Ode to the Trinity

I have to say I am honestly shocked after writing this all out, that I am really looking forward to the expansion.  I made as many catty comments about it as the next person, but the more I read about the changes the more I like.  The funny thing is, I know I am contradicting things I have said I wanted in the past.  I have seen enough of the “post-trinity” games that I know that I don’t really enjoy them.  At the end of the day, I really like having clearly defined roles.

The main problem I have had with abolishing the “trinity” is that without them I feel like I have no purpose.  While this is great for soloing, grouping in games like Guild Wars 2 has been sheer and total chaos.  The classes that generally get hurt the most are the melee, and those are the only thing I have ever been interested in playing.  I cannot be happy unless I am sinking a weapon in monster flesh.  Playing a “finger wiggler” just lacks the visceral quality that I crave.

So when I would try and take on a difficult/elite/etc encounter with group members, this little scenario would play out.  I would run in and begin to attack, sword and board in hand.  Sooner or later I would pull aggro, and begin trying to back out.  Ultimately I would fail at shedding aggro and die while trying to heal myself.  The fighting to stand up would fail as well, since we are fighting a big monster and not easily killed by throwing stones at it.  At this point I rez, and try and run back into the action which may or may not be all the way across the current map.

Even in games that have blurred the lines a bit, without going into battle knowing your role it feels like every bad pvp experience I have had.  “Lets all run in and throw ourselves at the enemy, I am sure they will fall to one of our flailing bodies.”  I like knowing who is the tank, who will be providing dps, and who will save all our asses by healing us when we do something phenomenally stupid.  A well balanced party was the key to pen and paper RPGs and honestly it still makes sense for MMO grouping.

Solo Friendly

I think the nugget at the center of every “post-trinity” argument however is pretty simple.  Everyone wants to be viable in both a group and while soloing.  SWTOR tried to solve this by giving everyone companions that essentially turned you into an instant somewhat balanced group.  WoW has added in a lot more self heals, and other ways to save yourself when things are going wrong.  Ultimately, everyone wants to be able to play the way they want to play and still be viable doing so.  For me that is usually tanking, which I guess places me firmly as a pillar of the trinity. 

This post has rambled on a lot longer than I had originally intended.  I guess in hindsight I should have broken it into multiple posts, but at least in my mind all of these things are connected. I am still pretty shocked that I am looking forward to roaming around Pandaland.  What I have seen of the areas, I have enjoyed.  I will go on at length another time, as to why I feel Cataclysm failed whereas Wrath and Burning Crusade did not.  Suffice to say, I feel Pandaria will be a return to the world building experience of the first two expansions.  I am looking forward to exploring this new and beautiful world.

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Choice

  1. Thats good to hear. Honestly the lack of a trinity is the main thing that drives me nuts about GW2. Because as you say solo its good. But once you group up it is stupid. Its like everyone in the group is acting like they are soloing but they are in a group, it kills me. I have no real problem with how WoW is making the talent system. Honestly it looks like they found something that works with Diablo 3 and are simply putting it into WoW and there is nothing wrong with that.

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