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

We’ve definitely heard much feedback to this effect, and this is something we’d been discussing quite a bit internally as well over the past couple of weeks. In an upcoming build (hopefully the next one; if not, then the one after), the respec cost is gone, and players can freely switch between all specializations with the normal restrictions of cast-time, needing to be out of combat, and so forth.

Ultimately, the intent behind the respec cost (which isn’t really a new concept, dating back to 2004 class trainers) was to help reinforce a bit of spec identity through declaring a “primary” spec to which you could always return for free, and to serve as a mild gold sink. But in practice, changing specialization is a pretty significant transformation in terms of action bars, optimal gear in some cases, artifacts, and so forth, and already not something that people were taking lightly. I suspect the cost will not be missed.

An area that has appeared to need a bit more friction, however, is actually talent changes. Especially with no reagent cost at all now, it can be all too easy to activate AoE talents before larger packs of enemies in a dungeon, and then switch back to single-target talents before a lieutenant or a boss. Or someone might switch to a passive movement-speed talent when traversing an area, and then back to something functional before entering combat. At that point, we’re often hardly talking about a meaningful choice at all, but rather a nuisance of extra button-presses or UI navigation before you can use your desired talents.

And so, alongside removing the respec cost, that same upcoming build will also restrict the ability to change talents when away from a safe area (defined as an area that provides the Rested state). We currently plan to give Scribes a recipe to craft a consumable Tome that can be dropped in order to allow all nearby players to retalent freely for a time – particularly useful for group play.
A couple of clarifications, one of which will probably be a relief and the other likely less so: The Inscription consumable as currently planned would be something that anyone could drop, not a profession-requiring item like a Jeeves. But, in terms of the materials required, we’re thinking of something that’s more aimed at groups, and probably not the sort of thing an individual is likely to carry a stack of and use freely.

This is clearly more restrictive than the way it works in Warlords. Why would we ever add restrictions to something like this? Do we just sit around and amuse ourselves by thinking of things to take away from players? (We don’t.)

Ultimately, for a choice to be meaningful there has to be some associated cost or trade-off in the process. Do you want to eat your cake, or do you want to save it for another time? If you could do both, that wouldn’t be much of a choice.

When it comes to talents, which serve the primary purpose of customization and differentiation, consider two extremes in terms of how they could be handled. Please, take a moment to think through the following scenarios:

First, what if you could switch talents freely, at any time, including while in combat? You’d effectively no longer have a talent system – you’d have a spellbook with another 21 active and passive abilities in it, with keybinds to swap between them as needed. Every player of a given spec would have identical capabilities, with some cumbersome interface management required to swap among them on the fly.

Second, what if you could literally never switch talents, short of making a brand new character? Choosing a talent would be a far, far weightier choice than any decision you currently make in the game (other than choosing your starting class, I suppose). Some favored cookie-cutter specs would emerge, but with 2187 different permutations of talents, there’d be significantly more variety among players. But some niche talents would likely go almost entirely unused (though players who did choose them would be invaluable when those situations arose). And feeling like you’d made a mistake, and were stuck with one or more talents that you didn’t like at all, might completely sour your enjoyment of a character.

Anyway, we are of course doing neither of those things, but there’s a full spectrum of choice that lies in between. We’ve generally moved away from the second scenario and closer to the first over time (years and years back, respecs were so expensive in relative terms that players often waited for class changes to automatically refund their talents rather than spend the gold to move a point around). Other than the combat restrictions, the live game is not terribly far off from the first scenario.

There’s still a fair bit of thought that goes into which talents to select for a raid encounter, where you’re in combat for several minutes in a row and facing a variety of threats, and you may have to weigh whether you want better AoE damage for minions in the first phase, or better single-target burst later in the fight; whether you want a passive movement-speed increase for higher overall uptime, or an on-demand active movement ability in case you get targeted by a specific troublesome ability; and so forth.

But most other content, whether it’s a single quest boss out in the world, or a dungeon that breaks down to a series of sub-1-minute combats, don’t offer nearly that much variety. And so you take the AoE talent for the AoE pack, and the single-target talent for the lone boss, to the point that you might as well just have both of them all the time, which might be powerful, but wouldn’t be a choice.
In this case, if you’re returning to any safe area (your Class Order Hall, Dalaran, Stormwind, or whatever) in between activities, you could change talents freely with no cooldown, cost, or other restriction. The Inscription consumable would only come into play if you wanted to change talent out on the fly, in the field.

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.