One set, one spec

4 April 2010 § Leave a comment

Let me bring you back to a time long long ago. When Varimathras was helping Sylvanas rule Undercity. When Sylvanas looked like a banshee, and not even remotely like the kickass Dark Ranger she is now. When to quest in Barrens you had to run everywhere – no mount at 20, no flight points every 5 metres: you just walked, backwards, on one hand, singing bootcamp songs, answering questions in /general about Mankrik’s wife, AND YOU LIKED IT!

Back then, the ultimate gear level, and the ultimate coolness, was to complete your class set. I’m talking about the dungeon set, of course – which for priests was the Devout set. The most interesting part of class sets, back then, is that there was one set per class, period. That was Blizzard’s subtle way of saying what your class role was. You’re a shaman? Forget Windfury weapon, and lightning bolts, your role is really to heal, as anyone who looks at the set bonuses of The Earthfury will quickly understand. The game was a lot simpler then, and it was clear that most classes had one role and one role only (when it was not one spec and one spec only) for endgame raiding.

Fortunately, Blizzard realised this was a bit of a constraint, and starting from the Burning Crusade, they began to work on multiple specs for each class – an effort that continued and became a lot more comprehensive in Wrath of the Lich King. I will spare you the issues with game balance, and multiple roles, and hybrid taxes – suffice it to say that, to veterans like me, the class balance is in a FAR better place now than it’s ever been: there’s room for improvements, but the road Blizzard has already travelled is pretty impressive.

As they expanded the variety of roles and specs, the developers started offering multiple class sets for each tier. So priests got a healing set and a shadow set; paladins a tanking set, a healing set and a dps set, etc. Sets however were not associated with specs, they were associated with roles. So, pure dps classes still had one set; priests had two, as do warriors and DKs; shamans, paladins and druids instead got three sets, as each tree of these classes supports a different role. Even then, the association was not perfect: druids had three sets, when technically their talent trees supported four roles (tank, healer, ranged dps and melee dps).

The result, as it stands today, is that you have multiple specs (or in the feral case, even multiple roles) that are supported by one set. Here’s where Blizzard’s success in creating multiple viable specs is coming back to bite them. Blizzard’s gamble was to create specs that felt different, but were reasonably close in terms of endgame dps that choosing amongst them would be a matter of choice. Sure, the min-maxers would always go for the one spec that provided even a 1% advantage – and some of them actually have the skill needed to squeeze that additional 1%. But for us common mortals, the difference in specs becomes so trivial that it really becomes a matter of choosing a spec that is more interesting for our playstyle, or the raid composition of our raids, or our interests outside tha raids.

The problem? Different specs place different values on different stats – this is part and parcel of specs feeling different from each other. Disc and Holy Priests may both be healers, but the interest Disc has in spirit is minimal, while conversely Holy’s interest in crit is less pronounced than its Disc cousins. Arcane mages value haste over everything else – Frost mages are less interested in haste (Frostbolt is already faster than Arcane Blast) and more in crit. This is compounded by the issue of set bonuses, of course. I don’t think ANY holy priest in a raid has ever used the T8 4-piece bonus in a raid – unless there were no Disc priests in sight.

This, of course, is not a new problem. Blizzard’s answers, to my knowledge, have fallen into four categories:

1. We don’t want players to look all the same, so the set is not the best gear. Uh. What? Have you checked the loot from any raid instance recently? In 99% of the cases they are recolor of one of the set for that armor class – so clothies get recolors of priest, mage or warlock sets, etc. This of course saves time from the art department, and avoids (mostly) the clown looks that we’ve seen in the past. But yeah – “looking different” cannot be a serious reason, given other actions by Blizz.

2. We don’t want the set to be the best in all slots, to encourage players to try out different offset pieces. The reality is that most people use any of the million available online sources to find out: a. which set bonuses are worth getting; b. what pieces are worth getting; c. what offpieces are best-in-slot. So, really, the competition for the same pieces is still there, and everyone is still going for the same pieces. If anything, tier slots have a slightly better chance to drop than most other pieces (thanks to the token system), so competition for those is, on average, less.

3. Developing more sets would require more man-hours from our team which would translate in less content or more time between content patches. I don’t want to belittle the time it takes to develop items and sets, but I’m not sure how much of an additional resource burden the multiplication of sets would be. Currently, we have 19 sets – having one set per spec would boost that to 30. That’s 11 more sets, or 55 more items to design. However, these items would be variations on a theme, mostly moving the item budget of one stat into another, etc.

4. Tier progression should not just be increases of the same stats in the same percentages – having different sets cater to multiple specs mean that one tier can be heavier on crit and the next on haste, for example. I would love that, but again, it’s not happening. If I just take T9 and T10 for priests, the same slots have haste (gloves and legs), while the others have crit – and all have spirit. So in effect, T10 IS basically just T9 but more.

In Cataclysm, two developments may make all of this moot. Reforging will allow Tailors, Leatherworkers and Blacksmith to partially reallocate stats. What is not clear to me is whether they will be able to do this to their own items only, or to anyone’s. If the latter, then sure, the issue of different stats will partially go away. Also, the simplification and elimination of some stats will arguably make things easier: Armor Pen not being there will eliminate a big barrier between enhancement shamans/hunters, but also across hunter specs.

If reforging and stat simplification doesn’t work though, it would be great if we could see one set per specialisation line in Cataclysm – or at least if we could get some more discussion from developers about it (in the vague chance that someone from Blizzard actually reads my blog…. I know, might as well wish for the moon, right?). There is something about collecting and wearing your own class set that still makes you feel better, and to be perfectly honest I love set bonuses of any type (makes you feel like you’re getting that little extra boost). However, part and parcel of specs playing differently and feeling different is that they need different stats, even when they are performing the same role. So it would be great if Blizzard could go further down the road they travelled, and give us this variety.


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