It’s a perpetual dance in game design. Give the players freedom to go do crazy things, or put them on rails so they don’t break your game (or play it the “wrong” way)? It’s a fine line that “live” games (MMOs, MTG, Warhammer, even) are especially wary of, since they are constantly on the edge between broken and brilliant… especially since that line is different for different players.
So, while the RealID kerfluffle is also stirring troubled waters between freedom and control, the game design of WoW is also testing the waters in the “control” side of the (kiddie?) pool. I fall squarely on the side of freedom, exploration and experimentation in games. To me, that’s the point of playing a game; to try something I can’t do in real life, and tinker in new and unusual ways. That’s my “theory of fun“; messing around, looking around, taking control as a player and seeing what happens. That’s why my articles on game design are more about giving the player control, not controlling the player. (It’s also why I consider failure itself punishment enough, and don’t particularly care for “death penalties” and other punishment mechanics. Just let me play the game, already!)
So, Blizzard wants to take the reins and make class talent trees more like immutable pillars or mini-classes, less like… guidelines. The goal seems to be to make the newbie experience better, and give class trees their own (dev-defined) identity and playstyle earlier in the leveling curve.
OK, the goal of improving the leveling game and newbie experience sounds good to me so far, and entirely in-theme for the renovated world we’re getting in Cataclysm. The newbie experience is crucial to getting the game to “stick”, and letting players have a taste of what they can do later is a great idea. (It’s played differently in things like Metroid Prime… which I’d actually prefer, but that’s not terribly likely here. Pity.) The sooner a Warrior can feel like a Warrior, or a Hunter can feel like a Hunter, the better (which is why pets at character creation is a Good Idea, while we’re talking class identity). It might even make grouping pre-endgame better, as players learn their roles earlier… if you care about that sort of thing.
Thing is, I’d have done it by making the trees more synergistic, rather than locking players into one progression path. (The very least that I’d do is make respeccing free and easy like Guild Wars, if we’re going to be stuck maxxing a tree before experimenting, and make Dual Spec very cheap and offer it early, say level 20 at the latest.) Rather than lock players into a choice of one of thirty subclasses and telling them to get used to it, I’d give them more choices and make them all interesting and useful, letting player playstyle dictate direction. I know, I know, that’s more work, but hey, it’s not like Blizzard’s a charity, hm? That sort of experimental playstyle also pretty much requires frequent respecs.
I like that a leveling Warrior can pick up a few Arms talents and a few Fury talents and go to town. As time goes on, generalization tends to be less powerful than specialization, but more flexible. I love that balance, and much prefer the option to sacrifice some power for flexibility. That’s why I play a Druid. (Insert rant about how hybrids are as good as two or three “pure” classes all rolled into one, if you so desire; I think there’s a good argument to be made for making “pure” classes undeniably best at what they do, while still keeping hybrids viable. I know, I know, in a world where 3% improved crit rate is worth investing three talent points, even a hybrid at 95% potential is going to feel like it’s nerfed… that’s one of the problems with only having three combat roles and 10 classes…)
So yeah, I’m a bit ambivalent about this talent tree overhaul. All in all, I can’t really find much but personal preference to base complaints in, and I do strongly believe that options are the heart of games. I don’t like the straitjacketing that the changes represent because I tend to explore and tinker rather than just go with the flow, and yet… the streamlining is probably a Good Thing overall, since it may well make learning the trinity easier earlier, and learning your class more entertaining (rather than only coming to fruition at the endgame).
As long as WoW is stuck in that class-trinity rut, they may as well teach it well.
For now, I’m going to say:
“OK, Blizzard, I detest your business practices with the deepest, hottest fire of a grumpy dragon, and this Game Design thing you do, well, I think it needs work, too, but since you’re dedicated to a path I’d not choose, you may as well do it right, and this change, well… that’ll do.”
…and yes, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the game design and the business design. They do affect each other in unhealthy ways, but credit where credit is due, after all. The WoW devs do have a few good ideas here and there. I do not agree with their apparent core philosophy of control over freedom, but they are at least making a few good changes to make their game better… even if I’d have made a very different game.
It’s like the Cataclysm on the whole; I think it’s a good idea (and I called for “old world” renovation a year before they announced it), but I’d have made the game world more dynamic from the start. They are doing decent design for their goals and within the box they put themselves in. Perhaps that’s a bit of “condemning with praise”, but so be it. I do think they do good game design, but it’s increasingly a game that I don’t particularly like.