On Talent Restrictions, Social Friction, and Cookie Cutter Builds

Blizz, I need your help.

A few months ago there was a little movement among guide writers (you can see my contribution here) on how to discourage cookie cutter talent builds and advocate for individual experimentation. For one, swapping talents is just fun — you feel smart when you pick the right one, and it’s more rewarding when there’s an interesting choice and opportunity cost with that talent tier. Two, players will probably do better when they are encouraged to find talents that work for them and their current struggles, as opposed to the general “best in slot” talent. I mean, Blizzard knows all these things. Some devs even retweeted my arguments. But that all lies in contrast to the significant barriers that will be placed on talent swapping come Legion:

Blizzard's Opinions on Spec and Talent Swapping

As a guide writer, encouraging diverse talent builds was already an uphill battle. Large communities like this already prefer simple answers to questions like “what talents do I pick?”. Everyone wants an easy answer, and one of the primary challenges of guide-writing was finding a way to deliver that answer while encouraging variations.

Beyond the gravitational pull a community has to a single right answer, people are lazy. They don’t want to jump through hoops to change things. Even with the insignificant barrier of Tomes of the Clear Mind pre-Legion, I had people approaching me with conversations that went like this:

Questioner: I’m really struggling with this fight, any advice?
Sunnier: I find Diffuse Magic is really really strong for this big scary boss attack.
Q: Well I’m currently specced Dampen Harm, any other advice?
S: …

Even with nothing more than a cheap reagent barrier, people felt like they weren’t supposed to swap. Blizzard probably has analytics on just how many people swapped talents often, and how many didn’t, and I wouldn’t be surprised if frequent swappers were a minority, even with Tomes.

(Part of that can be attributed to poor talent choices, but even if you cut the data down to talent tiers that were situational and powerful when swapped, like Brewmaster level 75 talents, I would still expect frequent swappers to be a minority.)

And now, that barrier to swapping is even higher. Even if we assumed that the cost of the Caldron of Talent Swapping to be relatively cheap (and it might not be), and we know that hearthing is free, there will be a time and complexity barrier to swapping talents, and I believe that barrier is unlikely to be crossed by the majority of players. (Again, we’re all lazy.)

Because of that time/complexity barrier, we’ll see a surge of “most applicable” talent builds that guide writers suggest we run with most of the time. It will be such a big event to change talents, something that you have to actually aim for, that the path of least resistance is simply finding your most applicable build and sticking with it. These types of talent builds are great, and they’re even one of the builds I offer when suggesting talents, but that was before the game itself, not just the community, pressured us into sticking with the same choices all the time.

Speaking on a purely personal level, there is typically one talent build I prefer for 5 man dungeons in Legion. The little UI minigame isn’t really worth the small increase in potency, and people got angry when I paused all the time to min-max talents (people always get impatient when a tank isn’t constantly moving). But when I encountered a boss that I just couldn’t seem to defeat, that’s where I really valued deviating from that cookie cutter. If a boss had adds that trickle in or a big predictible magic attack or some other situation that my cookie cutter build didn’t cover, I wanted to be able to adapt and improve. The way that talents have been changed in Legion, where some talents on the same tier might offer add control or add pickup and you can pick only one, it seemed like changing talents was expected. In fact, I think it’s nearly required if the balance of Legion 5 mans remains similar to what I’ve tested.

It’s one thing to expect that players jumping into Mythic dungeons will already know the challenges that await, but it’s a completely different thing to expect someone to jump into their first normal 5 man and know that the third boss has this one really strong magic attack that they should prepare for by picking a certain talent before accepting the summon, or ask four impatient pugs to wait while they hearth back and swap talents.

If expecting pugs to wait for you to min-max your talents is unreasonable, at least guilds can be expected to cater to your needs a little bit. But how much of a potency increase do you need to justify the time/complexity investment from your guild to allow a talent swap? If a talent makes you 7% better at your job, is that worth asking your guild banker to drop a Caldron of Talent Swapping? What if you’re the only one in your group who needs to swap talents? What if a talent might or might not make you better at your job for that fight, is it worth the potential double time/complexity investment to experiment? That is a lot to ask of your raid group, who will all be paying a price for your talent min-maxing because the time/complexity loss is group-wide. Everyone will have to wait while you hearth out, or guild funds will have go to your talent swapping. That is a ridiculous amount of social pressure just to fully experience an important aspect of the game, and it’s not one most players will bother with.

For guilds that take their progression content very seriously, it might become expected to drop a Caldron of Talent Swapping before each pull, right next to your feast. However, the difference between a Talent Caldron and a feast is that everyone needs food after a wipe, but not everyone needs to experiment with talents. Eventually, the caldrons will stop, and if you’re that lone raider who still isn’t quite sure which talent you want to use, you’re the one who has to ask your raid to make the time/complexity investment in your favor.

I believe that talents are best experienced when they need to be changed frequently, and not as yet another long-term combat customization tool. We already have plenty of combat customization, either through stats, how you grow your artifact, trinkets, tier bonuses, enchants, etc. We don’t need more long term combat customization, but what we need is more combat variance. We can’t frequently change any of those things just listed, but before Legion we were at least able to change talents. When we were struggling with a certain fight, we could make a last minute decision to try out a new talent. When we felt like we had mastered one part of the class, we could opt into more complexity on a whim. If we felt like we need to simplify something, we could even do that through talents.

I think there is a place for restrictions on talent swapping. Many solutions have been suggested already, like putting a cast time or a cooldown on talent swaps. We probably shouldn’t be able to min-max for every single little trash pull, but we also shouldn’t restrict one of WoW’s greatest features behind a wall of social friction, and Blizzard shouldn’t encourage cookie cutter builds by making it difficult to deviate from that expected path.

So, please Blizz, help a guide writer out. I want to keep encouraging diverse talent builds and experimentation. I want average people to use my talent guides. If talent swapping becomes something that only prepared players get to experience, then I don’t think my guides will be enough to encourage the talent variation we want to see.