With Legion announced, and dev team rolling out the biggest changes to the game, probably ever, I think it’s just the right time to look at how the things stand right now and speculate about the future.

It’s no secret to anybody that MMORPGs are incredibly complex, and balancing them is a task worth of Heracles’s trials. So I’m going to focus on a singular aspect that peaked my interest while playing in Warlords of Draenor, and that’s a dilemma of making every DPS spec viable in the raiding environment.

Just so we are on the same page, here is some trivia: there are 11 classes in WoW, as of patch 6.2, within these classes there are 34 specializations (Druids have 4), 24 of which are based around dealing damage. That’s quite a number for the game that’s designed around the idea of Holy Trinity.

I know that games like Lineage 2 have a lot more, but a lot of them are occupying incredibly niche roles like buffing or regenerating mana. That’s not the case here, and all specs are designed around fulfilling their role as DPSers, while keeping each play style unique and interesting… in some way.

So how do they manage to keep all of these specs unique and relevant in raids? Let’s find out!

I’m going to talk about my personal impressions, identify core building blocks of balancing and speculate at how the actual balancing is staged.

Damage mechanics

There are two ways to differentiate damage: by the number of targets and the way it’s being applied.

When it comes to numbers, there are your standard: single target, cleave (2-3 targets) and AoE (3+). Bosses in WoW are rarely fighting alone, most of the time they are being accompanied by the beefy servants or a myriad of adds, allowing certain specs to take advantage of that in different parts of the fight.

Ways of applying damage aren’t that numerous either, and those that matter, or have a potential effect on the boss encounter are even less:

Sustain

rogue
Rotation is a sequence of low cooldown abilities, that maximizes damage in certain situations

This damage comes primarily from the rotation, without the use of personal or external cooldowns.

In WoW, every single DPS spec has and relies on rotation and has a separate set of abilities dedicated to single target and AoE fights. Being consistent is great, but not ideal, as you aren’t very flexible when it comes to reacting to an immediate danger.

But, consistency isn’t limited only to a single target, sustainable cleave and AoE are less frequent, however, are the areas in which certain specs shine.

Burst

Burst
Ascendance off cooldown – TIME TO ROCK!

Being able to deal a huge amount of damage on demand is very underappreciated, however, extremely crucial part of the WoW combat. The entire encounter design, in raids, revolves around priority targets, and making sure that you can get to a certain stage of the fight as soon as possible. For that purpose every single spec has DPS cooldowns that range from 30 to 360 seconds. They need to used intelligently, just like potion buffs, usable trinkets, and raid wide cooldowns like Heroism/Bloodlust.

Periodic damage (dot)

bleeding
Thrash all day – everyday

This is a ticking damage that is dealt over a period of time. Something like a curse from the Priest, Warlocks, poison of Rogues or bleeding from Warriors and Druids are in this category. Dots could be considered a type of sustain damage effects, however, unlike those dots, they need to be managed – making sure that they are always refreshed and applied to the correct targets. Dots often utilized as a way of generating resources that are spent on combat abilities.

Execute

Execute
If only actual ability animation was that cool 😦

The damage increased when you use abilities on targets below certain percent of health. Named after Warrior’s skill – Execution, you can include Touch of Death from Monks and Shadow Word: Death from a Priests here as well.

Almost every boss will be dropping down to the execution phase, enabling these abilities, and delivering an increased damage at the end of the fight. This could be extremely crucial, as some bosses become increasingly more powerful, when they get to a certain health total, and players are put on the clock before inevitable wipe. Unfortunately, with great boost this also gives classes that specialize in execute a huge downside.

Arms Warrior is a prime example of that, if your group gets to the execution phase your damage is unrivaled, however, if the boss wipes the raid before that or, for some reason, you didn’t survive till the execution – you will end up at the bottom of the damage meter and at risk of being replaced.

armsexecute
Can you guess when Execution phase started?

Thankfully, bosses aren’t the only enemies who can be executed, that also applies to adds.

Labor distribution

Combining damage types with number of possible targets we’ll get 12 variations, that somehow need to be distributed among 24 DPS specs, but do they?

If we were to aim for a perfect balance, we would aim for each spec to deal equal amount of damage, if played correctly. Some players might even like that idea, as it will enable them to forget about the damage meter, choose the play style they’ve always wanted, and have fun with it. However, in this particular situations, a perfect balance will quickly make the game stale and boring to play. If an option of playing the spec is forced to be preferential that would remove the sense of purpose from specs. No longer there will be a moments of spotlight, in which your spec could really shine and leave all rivals in the dust. High end guilds would lose a strategic edge at picking up the best specs to deal with particular boss mechanics, and a dominant strategy would lure players to pick the easiest of them instead of the most fun.

In order to make the game fun each spec needs to have a feeling of empowerment, it needs to have a certain uniqueness, and being an undisputed master of it’s niche, while still maintaining a competitive edge at the sight of adversity.

Distribution won’t be simple though, as we have classes that fulfill multiple roles as well as those who are purely dedicated to DPS. The problem resides in the fact that classes, that seem versatile by having multiple role options, aren’t that versatile to the actual player. It’s good when you have an option of helping your fellow raider by stepping as a healer or tank, but you will be playing completely different game from which you were used to. On the other hand, if the raiding instance doesn’t have a place for your spec to shine, you will be demotivated to play, as no matter how much skill you have – the underlying potential of what your spec could do is always lower than others.

With pure DPS classes you don’t have that issue, as you are free to switch between 2 out of 3 specs at any time leaving out gearing the only issue to deal with.

As a rule of thumb – Blizzard is making sure that at least one DPS spec in all classes is viable in one situation or another. In the situation when classes have access to multiple DPS specs, they are making sure that strengths are distributed evenly. Let’s look at Hunter during the Blackrock Foundry: Marksman spec specialized in solo target, Survival at cleave and Beastmaster at AoE damage, allowing players to plan which spec they were going to be playing for each boss.

That situation rarely happens though due to an archaic limitation of having 2 specializations at a time (rumored to be removed in Legion), gearing issue (that would require you to carry 3 sets of gear), and a simple fact that this would complicate the game for majority of players, as not everyone is capable of playing equally well with all three specs. For that reason one spec is usually left on a bench, while two others are swapped in and out.

What’s actually happening in WoW is that Blizzard changing relevancy of certain specs from raid to raid via class changes, encounter designs, set bonuses and trinkets.

Certain specs are designed with this variable relevancy in mind, good examples of that could be Guardian Druids, Restoration Shamans and Brewmaster Monks that tend to start off weak, but scale with gear very well.

Importance of utility

Being capable of dealing massive amount of damage is all good and dandy, however, you need to be able to survive to do that, and your Mario skills will not save you, when certain events will force you, and your fellow raiders, into taking damage. Suddenly, your mitigation abilities or a raid wide cooldown become way more important than your position on a meter. The reason is simple: the more damage you take – the more healer mana will be consumed to recover it, and, as a result, your raid will require more healers to compensate.

Another important factor is utility that each spec can bring. Warrior’s mobility would allow him to quickly deal with a mechanic and return to dealing damage; Hunters bring in slows that allow kiting annoying adds to relieve the pressure off tanks; Druids capable of resurrecting fallen comrades in battle; Shamans calling for Bloodlust or Heroism.

Examples are numerous, but the fact remains that each individual class or even spec is capable of bringing something to the entire raid that could be more beneficial than individual DPS. Communicating this to majority of players is difficult, but this topic is better to be left for another time.

Ranged vs Melee

Another important differentiation is between ranged and melee specs. Melee DPSers are forced to follow the boss and move when switching targets, while ranged need to stay in range to cast. The upside is that melee DPS have majority of their abilities casted instantly, while ranged have  a casting time that roots them to a spot. In reality, melee and ranged DPSers are put in a situation, when they have to deal with different raid mechanics.

In Hellfire Citadel, Kilrogg Deadeye is a great example of that. When all melee DPS do is hit a boss and spawned berserkers, while their ranged compadres are dodging spears, run away from ranged attacks, and keep orcs away from the green pool. As you can imagine, you have to have certain number of ranged DPS in this scenario to cope with mechanics, but those few melee guys will take their time to enjoy consistency.

Theory

So let’s talk a little bit about theory, how do we go about assigning these specialties to each individual spec based on damage types, survivability, number of available roles, range/melee classification and utility?

If we were to create an actual excel sheet, every entry would look something like this:

tableDPS
Don’t quote me on ratings, I’ve just made them up

 The problem with this table is all of these ratings exist in the vacuum and are similar to the stats you can get from the simulationcraft.org. These are the stats calculated by the simulation running a certain amount of time on varying number of targets, assuming a certain tier of gear, and, which is the most important, excluding any type of boss mechanics. So it’s essentially like hitting a dummy, or a group of them, over a period of time. This could be very useful and very misleading.

simulationcraft_stats
Single target, 735 ilevel Patchwerk-style fight that you’ll never play

Simulations aren’t as terrible as players keep claiming, quite the opposite, they are very useful as tools that give early feedback on the class standings we are trying to create, but, beyond that, when the raid encounters start gaining more stages of varied mechanics, stat accuracy start dwindling.

The initial design balance for classes has to be complete before we start designing raid encounters, because we want boss encounters to be based around the spec balance we are trying to envision. The reason for that is quite simple: we don’t want balancing those two things against each other, however, we can still influence the balance and tweak it via the gear – mostly set bonuses, secondary stat distribution and trinkets.

In WoD, Blizzard made a statement that they don’t wish to make significant changes to how classes work for that particular reason, which makes sense, going into a rebalancing process that takes a significant amount of time mid expansion is ludicrous.

The recent example of them making a significant change to the spec was via gear. Arms Warrior was a spec that didn’t get much love in PvE ever since the Cataclysm, however, as soon as the players acquired a 4-set piece, and an Archimond trinket, that spec became simpler and started dealing an absurd amount of cleave damage, making it crucial for later boss encounters in the Hellfire Citadel.  

During this process we also need to make a decision of how we are going to handle assigning specialties to classes that have a singular DPS spec (Paladins, Monks and Priests). With other classes at least we have a choice, and making a single DPS spec per class playable is already a bare minimum we’ve established. Here we have a single shot, because if we aren’t giving these classes enough value throughout the expansion dedicated raiders will be forced to reroll.

I, personally, think that these specs should be great in a very few situations damage wise, but have a utility and suitability that would encourage people to stick to them throughout the expansion.

In general, the balancing steps could be similar to this:

  1. Creating a general idea of strengths and weaknesses for each spec. At this point we are simply trying to make them unique and decide on how they are going to scale with gear, aka who should be favored at the beginning, middle and end of the expansion.
  2. Designing the boss encounters to provide varied types of challenges, as well as getting a general idea of boss loot tables.
  3. Creating an encounter specific table for each spec and tweaking them via the items acquired before and throughout the encounter (dungeon loot, trinkets, gear sets).
  4. Polishing and balancing numbers for encounters and in some situations – specs.

Conclusion

Balancing an MMORPG is a never-ending process, due to the time constraints and frequent necessity of adding more variables into the mix. It’s dynamic, and even chaotic, due to how much distribution of strengths is changing from raid to raid, but that’s also the most interesting part for the players, even though they would deny that. Think about it: every new encounter is like a puzzle that each class has to solve on it’s own, figure out which spec, Talents, gear and Glyphs to choose, how to maximize your utility during the encounter, and so on.

Creating this variety, however, is a tremendous challenge, and can’t be handled perfectly every single time, if we wish to see any new mechanics added to the raid encounters. Developers are tasked at figuring out a niche for as many classes as possible to ensure they are viable and competitive. And the worst part is that sometimes that niche can be difficult to find for majority of players, if playing it isn’t resulting in them rising to the top of the damage meter.

There is one thing to keep in mind though, despite the fact that there are often specs that aren’t top-tier in the Mythic raiding environment, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t playable at all, they might never be at the top of the DPS when it matters, but can still get a passing performance if handled well. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to keep them as underdogs for too long. Staging occasional comebacks and shifts in power curve is an important factor that keeps game fresh and interesting for everyone.

PS: Oh, I’ve almost forgot – there is also PvP to account for 😉

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