According to WoW Census, there are more Hunters than any other class. There are a full 25% more Hunters than any of the next most populated classes. (Rogue, Mage and Warrior.)
This post from BBB is what piqued my interest. I’ve known about the census imbalance for a while, but haven’t put much thought into it. I’m also sure that this has been discussed before, but I wanted to take a look at it from my end, focused more or less equally on game design and player experience.
In that post, BBB calls on players to step out of the shadows and proudly proclaim that they play Hunters. It’s a great read, and the comments are likewise fun. At the heart of it, Hunters are just fun to play. Looking again to BBB, he described his initial interest in WoW as being based on two classes; the Druid and the Hunter. (Check about two thirds down in the article for the two bullet points.) Perhaps not coincidentally, those are my preferences as well. Why?
Well, there are sure to be those who say that Hunters are the best for soloing, since they are essentially their own two unit party. Others might say that guns are cool, or that the opening cinematic with the Dwarf Hunter got stuck in their mind. Some people just like fighting at range without relying on spells. Yet others might simply be coming from Pokemon, and want to build their own little beastmaster regime. The collector gene is strong in gamers, and with non-combat pets, even other classes can get into the fun. (Those links are to absolutely awesome sites, by the way; Petopia and WarcraftPets.com.) Still other players might be heavily into role playing (in an RPG, strange, I know), and literature is rife with stories of “a man and his dog“, all the way from “Old Yeller” to “I Am Legend”. Mania’s Arcania is perhaps the finest reference for tis sort of player.
That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are other reasons. I just want to dig a little deeper.
I think that a lot of the appeal of the Hunter class is that it’s a class with more choices than others. To be fair, that’s why they appeal to me, so perhaps I’m projecting. Even so, from a purely “game design” objective perspective, I think it’s true. Yes, any class will have a full suite of talent tree choices and a host of spells and abilities to tinker with. Blizzard has done a fairly good job of giving players options. I’m not saying that other classes are worthless, merely that they have fewer options and choices than Hunters.
A lot of it centers around the Pet. Hunters can tame a vast array of critters, and each brings its own unique style to the table. Sometimes, that style is purely cosmetic, what with different “skins” for effectively the same critter. I started with a brown bear, for instance, but once I found a rare white bear, I just had to train the beastie. The newest expansion, due out in just a few weeks, Wrath of the Lich King, will add even more critters to tame, including some really crazy ones like Rhinos and bloomin’ huge dinosaurs. (Prowling BRK’s history of posts yields some real gems. What are you waiting for? Go check it out!)
The wide array of choices gives Hunters more to do in the world than any other class. They have good reasons for exploring the world, digging around in every nook and cranny, if only to see what is out there. It’s a totally different mindset. Most classes just get into a relatively mindless Zen state, killing whatever foozle happens to be in front of them. Hunters, though, look at those foozles with entirely new eyes, asking themselves: “Can I use that? Do I want to use that? What could that do if I were controlling it? Would I look cool? What would I name it? How can I get that unique one out of the herd and tame it without dying to its friends?” This really tickles the Explorer in me, and I see it as extremely good game design. Getting people interested in the world as an interesting place with crazy inhabitants rather than a treadmill of death is a good thing.
Yes, there are non-Hunter Pets, but they don’t really do much. Hunter Pets are integral to how the Hunter plays. Each Pet type comes with a unique ability, and different tactics. A Moth will behave differently from a Crocolisk. A Hunter’s Pet defines how they play. (Or vice versa, whatever.) No other class has that sort of versatility. To be fair, Druids (my other favorite class) are also very versatile. They just change themselves into different animals. Shamans and Paladins can also be very versatile; that’s the strength of hybrid classes. Even so, a Hunter’s style is more varied (and different) simply because of the wider variety of critters to tame.
That doesn’t necessarily mean “better” game play, since that depends on what you want out of the game. That said, if you’re looking for variety and customizability, Hunters are hands down the best choice of class.
Looking at this from a game design standpoint, I see this as evidence for one of my main design tenets: Give Players Choices. Hunters have more choices in how they take ownership of their avatars than any other class. Sure, people can play dress up, but even that is limited because there’s no dye system in WoW. Yes, there are non-combat pets, including special event pets and engineering pets. Hunters bring their options to the table on top of those.
In an MMO, getting players involved with their avatars is one of the keys to retaining them as customers. It’s one of the keys to letting people have a good time. Hunter Pets are a fantastic tool in this vein.
Bottom line, whether or not it’s conscious, I think that many people see that Hunters give more choices to players, and they gravitate in that direction. True, this may be more of a casual or superficial concern, but really, that sort of stuff is important in an MMO. Hardcore raiding only carries so much weight. This is why I, as a casual player with a heavy Explorer bent, will always love to fire up my Hunter and go tool around in the world, looking for the next interesting beastie. This is why I, as a game designer, look to Hunters as a great game class definition, and a success worth emulating. Give players choices, make them interesting, relevant and important, and they will love your game. Make it grindy, and people will love the loot, but hate the play. Make the play itself interesting as well as the loot, and you’re sitting pretty.