10/10/2014

Thoughts on Disciplines after the Livestream

I said I was going to write down my thoughts on disciplines in more detail.

First off, let me explain why my initial reaction to the announcement and the idea that the new system might resemble WoW's current one was negative.

Most people who argue about talent trees on the forums one way or another seem to be divided on the issue of which system is deeper and/or provides more meaningful choices. While I've always resented the argument that old school talent trees result in nothing but cookie cutter builds (since this has never matched my personal experience at all, neither back in WoW nor in SWTOR), this is actually not that big a concern for me. I don't care that much about theorycrafting. I also don't have enough experience with any alternate system to genuinely say whether it would be better or worse in that respect than our old school talent trees.

However, when I briefly checked out WoW's Mists of Pandaria expansion at the end of last year, there were several things that I immediately hated about that game's new levelling/talent system and they had nothing to do with depth.

- Levels basically exist as markers that you've earned enough experience to improve your character in some manner. If there are times when you level up and nothing whatsoever actually happens, levelling up becomes meaningless and kind of boring.

- Regardless of whether speccing into "+2% damage" is a meaningful choice or not, actually taking the action of spending your talent points always made me feel connected to my character. It engages me in their progress. If they just gain most of their new abilities automatically, they feel like automatons that level themselves and on whom I have no influence. In fact, since it happens without player input these days, I sometimes missed my WoW character gaining new abilities altogether.

- While WoW's interface for its new talent system is clear enough, the way the old talents/specialisations were baked into the base classes is horribly obtuse. The old talent trees provided a clean overview of what it meant to invest in a certain spec, how one ability was an improvement over another and so on and so forth. In current WoW, the formerly talented abilities are a jumbled mess mixed in with your regular class abilities in your spell book - good luck with figuring out how they're supposed to synergise and with keeping track of what's a class and what's a spec ability.

- I also do not like the way WoW's talents are meant to be easily swappable on a per-fight basis because I don't enjoy respeccing. I want to pick the way my character is supposed to work and then go play, without having to worry about rearranging my UI every other fight. Yes, some people like doing just that (we have some in my SWTOR guild too), but from my experience there are at least just as many of us who don't. And while you could argue that the ability to change things on the fly is optional and I don't have to use it, in practice fights tend to be designed with the idea in mind that people will use all available features to their advantage.

Now, so much for my "why I don't like the way talents currently work in WoW" rant. After watching the recording of the developer livestream devoted to explaining disciplines, I actually feel reassured about some things at least. Base class and advanced class abilities still won't train themselves. Spell ranks are not going away either. (I never thought I'd be rooting for spell ranks, as they are kind of silly... but having seen the alternative of gaining nothing for many levels, I'll take the placebo of new spell ranks any day.) SWTOR will also retain a clean interface to show what specialised abilities your character gains along the way and in what order. These things matter to me and I feel reassured that Bioware seems to want to refine their current talent system instead of completely replacing it.

On the livestream it was even said that they don't plan to remove the intro quests you currently have to do in order to choose your advanced class, even if you will now be able to just make a choice straight from the UI. I thought these quests were a nice piece of flavour.

I'll admit that some of their arguments for making this change are absolutely fair. It is kind of silly that you can choose to be a tank and not actually have any tanking abilities for several levels. (Ever tried tanking Hammer Station before you even got your basic taunt?) Raising the level cap is always an issue with old school talent trees, and since Bioware seems to be on track to release a story expansion every one and a half years, it's understandable that they don't want to have to re-jig the whole thing every time. (Though the way I see it, more levels will still require the system to be re-tweaked every time. Maybe it will take less effort though.)

Nonetheless, some concerns of mine remain. They claim that this new system will make it easier to balance the classes, however I remain sceptical. I know that in WoW, low-level class balance got worse every time they changed the talent trees, with side effects such as tanks doing five times as much damage as damage dealers in lowbie dungeons, and some classes being able to literally one-shot other players in certain level ranges (and that even without having particularly good gear). Admittedly I don't know if that's a problem with changing talent systems in general or if this is caused by the way WoW calculates its numbers. However, you'll forgive me for being wary of the potential fallout of this, especially considering that lowbie PvP and group content in SWTOR are currently pretty well balanced and highly enjoyable.

Likewise, I'm not really sure how the new utility skill system is supposed to be that much easier to balance. I understand why and how hybrids have been an issue, but now you'll just have people choosing a combination of 7 out of 21 utility skills to go with one of three specialisations for one of eight classes instead. That's still a lot of room for people to find some overpowered combination, and maybe it's because I'm not a developer, but I don't see how it's going to be easier to balance an utility skill that all three specialisations of a class will always have access to than it was to balance skills that were limited to a single talent tree. I expect that a lot of utility skills will suddenly seem very overpowered when given to a specialisation that wasn't originally supposed to have them, and I fear that class balance post 3.0 might be a bit of a nightmare as a result of this.

On the whole however, I already feel a lot better about the upcoming changes. I have to admit, I thought that the way they presented the new interface in the livestream looked cool, as it struck me as both intuitive and relatively hassle-free. They also seemed so genuinely excited about the new system, I found it hard not to let that rub off on me at least a little bit. I'm almost looking forward to trying it myself at this point.

3 comments :

  1. The tanking issue in WoW was caused by how Vengeance worked. Vengeance was originally intended as a system that let undergeared tanks hold threat against folks that were high-end raid/ops geared. Vengeance scaled too well, so well that a self-healing tank in the best gear could routinely heal their full health pool every few _seconds_. Some tanks were able to stay alive for minutes until the berserk timer hit with everyone else (24) in the group dead. The problems with Vengeance is going away in a week as Blizzard will be replacing it with a new system.

    I do think the Discipline system will help in that it will be easier for Bioware to know that each spec will always have x abilities. Under the current system they can't even be assured that everyone has their top-of-the-tree ability. If they can reduce the number of groups that feel you need to have N people of Y class specced as W to progress in HM and/or NIM *cough*bring the player not the class*cough* then the Discipline will be a success.


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    1. That's a good point about Vengeance, I'm not surprised I forgot about something after all that time. Though I think it actually started before that, when they moved away from making tanks rely on threat and increased their dps...

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    2. I can understand that the reason the tanking (and healing, and good DPS) abilities are so far up the skill trees is to prevent precisely this sort of 'tank-mage' abuse, but I still think that Bioware has gone too far in the other direction. I'm still not convinced that going from a state where there is a single 'optimum' build for each skill tree with a few extra skill points that can be distributed in peripheral skills as the player chooses to a state where there is a single build for each Discipline with a few points where the player gets to pick a few peripheral skills is any sort of improvement.

      Killing hybrid builds -- one of the goals of the change to Disciplines -- could have been done just as easily by taking the bottom-tier skills that people would take outside their primary tree and putting them in _every_ tree, and then making your choice of tree exclusive -- you pick your tree and then can only pick skills from _that_ tree. It would still have let them move 'signature' abilities down to much lower level without having hybrid builds screwing up balance, and each tree could have been broadened, with different branches giving slightly increased damage, or slightly increased range, or slightly reduced energy cost, giving more actual customization that could be done within a tree.

      I have concerns that, for any given choice of Discipline for an advanced class, there will turn out to be a single optimum set of picks from the Utility pool, reducing what little effective personalization of characters we can do now around the 'good' builds for each tree to cookie-cutter electronic dolls we play dress-up with as their sole individuality.

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