The hard choices: When to cut abilities people love?

Blizzard has a problem. They have been adding abilities to World of Warcraft for the last 10 years. Some of those abilities work great (see: Lifebloom in Burning Crusade becoming druids’ primary healing spell), and some of them cause more problems than they solved (See: Starfall pulling all the things, all the time, even when every patch says they fixed it, and isn’t even the AOE spell it used to be). Blizzard decided that for the WOD expansion, they want to trim back some of the button bloat, and get back to something a little more streamlined. This means that if Blizzard does their button bloat fixing, you will have fewer buttons in WOD than you did in MOP. This means that some button you loved is going away, and is probably not being replaced by a new button. (See: the old Ten Ton Hammer for an explanation of ability bloat & why Blizzard is looking to fix it).

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This is the tough question. There are people who truly love every spell, no matter how terrible it actually is. There was a response to this tweet from someone talking about how much they missed “Thorns” (a druid spell that reflected damage back when you hit the druid with melee attacks). However, most everyone also agrees that there is a certain amount of “button bloat” that needs to go. Blizzard has argued that the way to fix button bloat, however, isn’t just to just cut out the buttons no one uses.

In fact, I think people will argue that they do use Soothe (druid ability that dispels enrage effects), even if they haven’t used it for an entire expansion. You could argue that we should keep Soothe because we might sometimes need to use it if they happen to put a boss in an encounter that we need to Soothe. Still, though, if they removed Soothe, they would need to change how enrage mechanics work and streamline the buff/debuff/dispell system more generally. So, they wouldn’t be able to put in an encounter that required Soothe if the button no longer existed (thus, arguments for keeping soothe are really circular – because the game can be balanced either way around the abilities we have, or don’t have).

Cutting the buttons people love

If we can’t just cut spells people use once a year, what can we cut from rotations people use every day that people will learn to live without?

In terms of spells that could be removed, the player base has to be willing to accept that some of Blizzard’s spell experimentations didn’t work, that Blizzard added too many spells to the game, and that creating the illusion of choice and interesting PVE rotations isn’t about who can balance a plate on their head while jumping up and down and repeating the alphabet backwards. Somewhere, Blizzard has to make the hard choices and cut spells that we use every day, but could easily live without.

For example, Blizzard had to remove Insect Swarm from moonkin because it caused more balancing issues than the spell was worth. The best places to cut are things like the removal of Insect Swarm that never really worked well with Eclipse in Cataclysm, and just cause more problems than was worth fixing. Plenty of people loved Insect Swarm, but we learned to live without it, and it turned out that moonkin were just as fun without insect swarm. All the petitions in the world to save Insect Swarm wouldn’t make it work with the new moonkin rotation – it still always left Eclipse out of balance, and was better for the game to be removed. There weren’t any really solid arguments for keeping insect swarm, and thus it was better for moonkin that the button was taken away.

In a previous post, I suggested the best places to remove buttons would be in reducing redundancy. In addition, I suggested making some buttons only for PVP and others only for PVE in a way that was much more distinct than previous expansions. In the case of Alter Time, it is a perfect example of a spell that could work better as PVP-only (providing only utility, without any interactions with our main DPS spells, procs, trinkets, heroism other damage buffs in our primary raiding rotations), rather than working in both PVP and PVE. It would remove a PVE rotational button while still technically preserving the original utility design.

Places where it makes the most sense to remove abilities are places where there is redundancy (in the case of any class that has a bunch of DPS cooldowns that all largely get macro’d together). Yes, all the classes “love” all of the DPS cooldowns that get macro’d together, but they won’t hate their class if they have one less thing bound to the macro. So, places where things get macro’d together are good places to cut buttons, because this largely starts to reach the point of the actual definition of “clunky” (having to hit X number of buttons before doing Y) if people don’t have them macro’d together. There are plenty of these examples for every class, but even if people love the cooldowns, it would be really an easy place to cut and streamline abilities from player rotations.

People often mistake poorly implemented mechanics for “flavor”, but if Blizzard is looking to reduce the number of buttons we use, it would be in Blizzard’s best interest to remove the most poorly implemented mechanics instead of trying to make the mechanics work. This is also why they should probably remove some of the crowd control buttons in PVP, however, to give players back their sense of control.

This is also why the mage level 90 talents need to go. Rune of Power is another ability that requires the mage to stand still and takes away control from the player. Having to risk death to your character just to do equal damage to the other people in your raids means you are a liability, not an asset, to your team. Rune of power isn’t worth saving or fixing – it would be better to just cut it (and the rest of the level 90 talents) and start over again with new level 90 talents. Yes, some people “love” the level 90 talents, but that isn’t reason enough to save failing mechanics.

Thus, for PVE reasons, Alter Time is really a poorly implemented, hard to balance, and redundant cooldowwn that feels like it has unique flavor, but that “flavor” is just in the form of being able to randomly kill you – and becomes my primary example of DPS cooldowns that aren’t really needed (Even if lots of people “love” the spell). Random deaths that are largely out of your control, however, do not add any actual fun to the game. Just like having starfall aggro all the mobs in the zone doesn’t actually add any fun to the game (I think Starfall is another good candidate for the “this never worked right anyway” chopping block, to be honest).

Random PVE deaths aren’t particularly fun, and they can really let down your team. An ability that essentially randomly causes you to explode is fun for an expansion or two, but isn’t really unique “flavor” that makes a class fun (and while I originally suggested that living bomb should require the mage to explode and come back in the form of a Phoenix, there’s a good reason why that joke suggestion was never implemented). So, when I joke about wanting “alter time” to die in a fire, this is mostly because of the number of times it has caused me to get sucked back into randomly spawning fires I just moved out of, and the feeling that every time I use Alter Time, the spell is essentially taking away my ability to truly control my own character’s movement for the next 6 seconds.

If I have to give up a button, I would rather give up this button that doesn’t work right than ones I think are actually well designed for current-day content. When we got to actually stand still in raids, being rooted to the ground for 6 seconds wasn’t a problem, but with more and more running in actual circles happening in raids, abilities that take away our sense of control are good places for Blizzard to cull because they start to be incompatible with how encounters are designed. Even though some people love spells that root players to the ground, the game isn’t about who can stand still and nuke Patchwerk to death the fastest. Encounters are now designed to make you jump through hoops (literally in the case of Firelands), and having to balance plates on your head (and having you die any time you drop the plate) while you jump through the hoops really isn’t what this game should be about.

Would it be possible to fix spells like Alter Time and Starfall rather than cutting them? Yes, absolutely. However, the primary goal of reducing button bloat is the goal is to cut spells – and the best place to cut spells is to cut what isn’t quite working as intended so you can focus on making the actually more functional spells work better. In many cases, buttons that could be cut are buttons we asked for in the first place, but we have to be willing to let go of something, or there will never be any fixes to the button bloat. In some cases, I’m being particularly antagonistic just because I want people to think more about what buttons would be the best to chop, not just about why X spell should be kept – but what button would you give up instead to be able to keep X spell? In picking on spells people love, but could live without, my point is to get people to think more critically about the seriousness of the consequences of Blizzard’s attempts to reduce button bloat.

The point I’m trying to make is less about any individual spell, however, and more about the fact that Blizzard has to make hard choices. In the end, we can all make suggestions of things we love and couldn’t live without, or things we hate and wish would go away. If I have to give up buttons, I would rather give up buttons that take away my sense of control over my character, are redundant with other buttons, or serve no real purpose other than providing a sense of “flavor” without any real meat behind it.

Are those buttons also things that people love? Yes, but the fact that people love every single ability in the game isn’t reason to avoid fixing the problem of button bloat. It sucks to lose spells that you love, but we can’t fix button bloat if we don’t cut spells that people love. You can learn to love your class again even if you have fewer buttons.

12 Comments

  1. Grizzlebees
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    To add a thought here as someone who works in the game industry and thinks another thing is completely lost on the general audience.

    So many people argue for the “fixing” of problems with some abilities (Alter Time, of course is on the mind because of the tweet wars raging about it). I keep seeing the words “easy fix” tossed around a ton. Well, there is no such thing.

    For an ability as complex as AT, any adjustment touches on a ton of things. There would be a massive amount of things needed to be tested by QA for any changes made to the spell. You know what doesn’t take much time to test?? Removal.

    I even bet one of the biggest issue brought up about AT was caught and called out by Blizz’s QA, but was determined to be too complex and too much of a testing timesink to fix. I am talking about the Bloodlust debuff interaction. I guarantee someone in QA called that issue out, and they received the response way too familiar to those of us who toil in game QA, WILL NOT FIX.

    With all the times this issue has been brought up over the course of the expansion, why has it not been fixed by this point??? Too much complexity to develop/test during a patch cycle, that’s why.

    Now comes the time where there are looking to reduce buttons. The spell that isn’t quite working as advertised could be fixed…….but we also have our hands full with these new features/changes to game systems. So, the simple solution is to get rid of that spell.

  2. Dà Chéng
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    “You could argue that we should keep Soothe because we might sometimes need to use it …”

    One concern is that older content might have been built around the expectation that a certain ability was available. If it is no longer available, that might break such content.

    As for Alter Time, R had a good suggestion for fixing it. Provide a glyph to remove the movement part of it.

  3. Berdache
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I look back with nostalgia at the old starfall and the wipes cause by pulling every pack in an instance. But I also miss its abilities when grinding large number of mobs.

  4. Posted January 29, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Good post. I’d love to see a reduction in the amount of buttons we have. I’m not raiding on my Druid anymore, but after they fixed Mushrooms to make them something I actually wanted to use, I pretty much ran out of easily accessible keybinds to use. There were just too many spells. There’s a lot of redundancy. For healers there’s a big source of redundancy in single target cast spells. Do I need Healing Touch, Regrowth and Nourish when 90% of healing done in any encounter is AoE/multi-target healing? Nope. I haven’t even had Nourish bound since a week into Mists.

    I also agree with reducing the number of cooldowns or bundling cooldowns together. I was thrilled when Readiness was removed from hunters. It did have some novel uses (especially in PVP) but overall it just wasn’t needed. Pop all cooldowns to open, wait until they’ve finished, hit Readiness, pop all cooldowns again. You don’t get much more clunky than that. Even with Readiness gone, I still have 6 different cooldowns (give or take, depending on talents) to use when I’m specced BM. Get rid of some, or combine them together.

  5. R
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Love this post, I’m entirely in agreement with the overall thoughts and the specific examples given.

  6. Obtuse
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t the goal of button bloat removal to reduce the buttons required for a character to do what it wants to do? Not cut actual things that the character actually needs to do (spells). So end result, characters will do what they do now but using less buttons total.

    I think they could remove spec and add more talents at the same time to give players more choice how they play and what utility they like to fill

  7. Kodaline
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I think the problem is people confuse, sometimes deliberately, relative power with absolute power. People don’t want to lose anything because they are afraid they might need it. See above Soothe example. I use Soothe infrequently, and I would be ok with losing it, because I know that I would not have to expect content that I need it anymore, ie, player enrages gone, and most boss enrages gone. People don’t get the second part.

    The other part is versus other classes. Making some generalizations here, every class has roughly the same number of spells, spread out across the trees. This is why bear druid has less tanky buttons than prot warriors do, and I’ve always like that. However, I’ve not been a bear in a long time, so that may not be entirely correct. However, comparing Resto Druid to Healing Priest, you see that Priests do have more heal-y buttons as well. And, that’s not so good, because healing, imho, requires more spells than tanking does, it’s a right spell for the right job sort of thing.

    So, while I use the hell out of the core resto druid spells and talents, and now healing touch with the resto tier bonus (which SHOULD get baked in for WoD), I even want to hold onto little crappy Nourish because it is an extra spell. Yeah, it desperately needs rework, but it’s another placeholder for a resto spell that keeps me powerful relative to the other healers. They could give it a good buff during incarnation, like “refreshes hots on all targets in range” or something like that.

    My point is that pures and double role hybrids have a lot more fluff spells to lose than 4 role hybrid druids. Some of those roles are easier with less buttons to hit, and some are made much harder by lacking them. They need to not wreck a class by removing buttons that are needed. I would see no issue with combining hibernate and soothe, and improving roots and ditching nature’s grasp, but, other than fixing nourish, I like resto the way it is.

  8. Fnodoz
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I’d like to give up the class buffs, like Mark of the Wild, they haven’t worked properly since WotLK. I hate it when I’m in a group and some other Druid or Monk casts their buff after me, and then when I leave the group the buff falls off. Pushing a button after the last person joins/arrives isn’t exciting game play. If Blizzard really wants to reward having multiple classes in a group they can make them like the current Rogue buff, no button pushing necessary.

    Also agree about the Druid direct heals, we don’t need three.

    • Lissanna
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure that one of the druid direct heals is an obvious example of something that should be cut.

  9. TTGFJamie
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I don’t even think Alter Time is bad right now. If you’re going to be in danger when it runs out, cancel it early. Yeah, okay, you don’t get the best DPS benefit from canceling it early; but, you lose 100% of your DPS if you’re dead, and it doesn’t matter how good your DPS was during Alter Time if you die during a raid wipe.

    The only rough thing about Alter Time right now is that if Bloodlust is cast during Alter Time, you lose Bloodlust, and not Sated (or whatever the Alliance equivalent is). Alter Time certainly CAN be easily fixed – both in the problem of losing Bloodlust, AND making it less accident-prone – by removing its interaction with buffs and debuffs, and only interacting with HP, MP, and positioning. Not only do you not have to worry if BL is being cast at an unfortunate time, but you won’t die as much cos you’re not going to be compelled to use it as much as possible for DPS. Now, it’s an ability available for if you want to actually take advantage of its movement properties, or its a defensive cooldown, since you can activate it at high health, tank a high damage attack, and then restore all your health.

    • Lissanna
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, if Alter Time is no longer part of the DPS rotation (and becomes pure utility), that does ultimately fix the problem that introducing it to rotations caused. That still means that people would lose a button from their DPS rotation.

  10. TTGFJamie
    Posted February 7, 2014 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    That’s true, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s a pretty lame DPS button; not only is it wildly against the spirit of AT (which would be to actually DO some stuff, like run around, soak hits, kite things, etc.), but the compulsion to use it on cooldown can lead to some dangerous situations if you’re not careful.

    On the flipside, if you ever PvP, your perception of Alter Time would be forever changed; AT is such an amazingly fun ability in PvP, because you actually use it for fun things, i.e if a Warrior is beating you up, AT, jump to a lower platform and watch them follow you. When you port back up, they have no way to return to you in a timely manner, and you can free-cast on them. Oh, and you got a lot of your life back that the Warrior took from you. That’s equal parts fun and exciting, and it allows some creativity.