Thursday, April 04, 2013

Hunting High and Low

Hunters. Are they really broken?

Once upon a time, I applied for the job of Hunter Columnist at WoW Insider. When I didn't get it I found myself thinking I was quite relieved, because on reflection I'd have been exactly the wrong person for the job. I don't think about Hunters the same way a lot of people do. Certainly I don't have the sharp end raiding mentality that I suspect I'd have needed to be impartial about the way hunters have changed since that time. What I'd always hoped, however, is that whenever key issues were discussed by people who mattered, they'd grasp the fact that there are many, many ways to play a Hunter. More importantly, many different people play them.

For a long time I allowed myself to get unreasonably obsessed about my dps, mostly because I couldn't play the game with my friends the way I wanted. I made some fundamental changes as a result and I'm having more fun with my Hunter than I've had at any time in the last eight years, and I haven't touched a serious raid environment since January. Those changes in my playstyle made me realise that, yes, dps is an issue. It does make the difference between success and failure in many situations. However, when your primary weapon hasn't been upgraded since three weeks into the Expansion, and despite multiple attempts to do so you're still packing less dps than most of your fellow raiding Hunters, you are forced to compromise.

My discussion above with Frost (which came off the back of a discussion with Ghostcrawler about how hunters need less things to press to make them better) has filled me with a measure of surprise, because for the first time since I started reading his comments (both on WoW Insider and on this own website) I know I disagree with him. Reward should NEVER be measured with a number. I get his point, really I do, but I don't see that making things 'easier' with less buttons and forcing people to play a 'set' way will ever end in anything but failure. I'll happily agree that there are a ton of people who can't play their class for toffee, but that's not just the Hunters, that's anyone who can't be bothered to work out how things actually work. I believe the problem is that the three Hunter specs are just variants of the same basic principle: we trap stuff, we sting it for damage over time and our pets kill things. That's three specs, all too similar to the other for it ever to be a big difference.

The problem therefore isn't the shots, it is the specs themselves.

Let's say, for the sake of example, that Blizzard went back to the drawing board. They'd need a spec that owned in PvP and was an easy fit. There'd need to be a spec you used for Soloing, and then one in Raiding situations... except, of course, you don't do that anymore in this game, all specs fit all contingencies... which is why Hunters now work rather well, because they are simply one spec that can be adapted to any problem almost seamlessly. The fact they overlap so much is part of the charm, at least for me. You can simply spam Arcane Shot if you so desire but then you can go to town with other abilities in specific situations. I have learnt to love my Silencing Shot so much in solo play. Disengage is a godsend. Deterrence also is a must have in situations where it's just you V the Game World. Reward in these cases comes not from dps, but from not running from the Graveyard.

Reward exists in other places too: soloing stuff notwithstanding, I am hugely resilient in LFR with a Spirit Pet and when I've never met anyone whose healing me nine times out of ten the ability to keep myself alive is very welcome indeed. Killing large groups of mobs with Mr Alt is an absolute joy with the right pet and a combination of traps and aoe. In these situations, having the right weapon doesn't actually matter at all. You know if you are a regular here that I have lamented my lack of LFR drops over many, MANY months but now, as I type this, I realise my weapon really is only a means to a 10 point achievement and the thought I finally beat the RNG. I can do so much without it, and as the rest of my gear increases in iLevel around it I can still do the numbers in LFR without being laughed at because it's less and less about just standing still and pumping out numbers and more and more about learning the mechanics and adapting my abilities to play around them.

I know I speak from a standpoint that is a world away from the business of serious damage, of World of Logs and World First Kills. I also know that with eight years of experience under my belt I'm in no position to understand what it must be like to pick up a Hunter from scratch. Satisfaction and enjoyment does not come simply from an ability to pick a specific set of commands to execute. It is an incredibly complex process that I sense has a lot more to do with gender than I'm comfortable or capable of discussing. There's an awful lot of contention over that subject in mainstream gaming right now, after all. Suffice it to say: Pavlov taught dogs to respond to basic stimulus. Game designers are doing the same thing, for an audience of considerable diversity. Assuming reward is simply quantified is a dangerous precedent to take. What makes one person happy is clearly not how it works for another. Blizzard have been living off the ability of this game to perform that task for a long time now, and I'd like to think this part of the game plan isn't likely to change any time soon.

Frost felt the need to clarify his position after that initial tweet: the reward for optimal execution of your rotation should be better dps. It is, right now: if you do it right you bring the numbers. Poor players will, by definition, never execute correctly, they'll just keep mashing buttons and never learn. Giving the people who do learn less things to do sends us back to the school of 1 Button Magery: you'll get bored in the end. Better dps is meaningless unless it is coupled with many other abilities. Reducing the number of buttons so you can move out of the !*$£ will never help some people regardless of how much you streamline the process. Making this 'easier' might help Frost and the high end people, but it has the capacity to cause more damage over time than his correctly executed Serpent Sting ever would. Some people will, regardless of any change, simply revert to the way they find simplest. I'm pretty convinced that we want to try and prevent that happening at any cost. 'Not thinking' should never be the default state in this game.

The reward for optimal execution of your rotation should be the knowledge you're doing your best. The numbers should be a bonus, and they should never define you. The acceptance of your friends that your class is really robust and great fun to play right now should not be a hindrance. Not raiding should not make you a bad person, and raiding at high end should not make you a pariah in your peer group. Numbers are academic, what matters is enjoyment and frankly this class is NOT BROKEN AND DOES NOT NEED FIXING. Like a flesh wound that's happily healing, the last thing you should ever do is keep picking at it until it becomes inflamed or infected, because you're right back at square one. There are lots of ways you could change Hunters, of course there are. I just don't see the need.

Despite 'everything', I'm really rather happy where we are.


Frostheim said...

I worry that we were talking about different things in that Twitter conversation -- and it can be hard to clarify in just 140 characters.

My point is not that lots of buttons is hard. My point is that too many buttons results in a homogenization of abilities, which results in less reward for skilled play.

I think an optimally executed shot rotation should result in clearly superior dps -- thus higher dps is the reward. I think you have to look at it this way for mechanical balance discussions.

The problem right now is we have so many dps buttons that the dps contribution of each one is getting more and more similar. Thus right now you can literally ignore your level 90 ability and do really close to the same dps as the person playing in a substantially harder way. There isn't much reward for doing it optimally, and the reason for that is too many buttons leading to too similar dps.

There are design problems with this state too, and we've bumped into a couple. Remember in beta when arcane shot was buffed slightly and was suddenly better than Explosive Shot? Then it was nerfed slightly and was suddenly worse than Cobra Shot. There just isn't much room anymore to move the damage around without the ability becoming useless.

So I'm not talking about dumbing down the game, or catering to casuals. I am in fact talking about bringing the game back to a state where your skill had more to do with your dps.

For the most part hunters require vastly more skill now than in the history of WoW (with the exception of movement, which is ridiculously simple now) and if you yoinked a couple abilities from our rotation (focus fire, amoc, db) we'd still be more complicated than the history of the game up to MoP.

Melanie Long said...

Sounds like two conversations going on here, and they only slightly overlap. The uber casual may not think higher dps should be your reward for skillfully performing your rotation... but the competitive raider sure does.

I agree with Frostheim, we have too many buttons that are similar in damage output, leaving us with the option of ignoring a few with very few penalties in our dps. This makes it so there is very little difference from someone performing optimally and someone ignoring an ability or two.

Jaeger said...

As Melanie said, kind of two different conversations, because I agree with both of you.

I feel that hunters need less rotational dps abilities, so we can use focus on the core abilities. Reduce some of the homogenization that Alt mentioned.

The combination of tons of buttons and the 1sec GCD results in cramps after a long fight... that's just not enjoyable.

It's too risky for Blizz to really change anything mid-expansion especially since we're in an OK spot balance-wise, but next expansion, I'd like to see some changes. Go back to a longer GCD, change the talents so they are not rotational abilities, put bigger emphasis on Signature abilities for each spec, etc.

Anonymous said...

Frostheim pretty much nails it here I have to say. As someone who often looks at recount logs I notice this myself, you see people who are basically ignoring things they should be using pulling dps close to those who actually put effort and skill into their play. This is a far cry from previous expansions where individual abilities made more of an impact overall and someone not using an ability correctly would be a fairly obvious detriment.

The problem for blizzard is catering for both casuals and hardcore. Hardcore players want to see visible rewards for their proper execution of mechanics and priorities and that is perfectly fine. There SHOULD be a difference between getting things right and just derping around, or what incentive does anyone have to learn and get better?
Conversely, casuals want to be able to be effective without spending a ton of time practicing and perfecting their skills.
Blizzards problem is how to have it so suboptimal performance is still adequate for questing, dungeons, casual bg's and lfr, while optimal performance is required for heroics and close to it for normals.

Much of the problems stem, imo, from the more casual players, who have a sense of entitlement to be able to do all game content without actually putting any effort in. Work ethic seems to be a devalued thing nowadays. Oh damn I sound like my dad....

Katzbalger-Arthas (US)

Mushan said...

I've come to a point over the past couple of months where I agree with Frost on this issue.

I hadn't previously, but it does seem to have come to a point where I can max out my damage by maxing out my uptime more than anything else. (Of course, if I only used AS, CS, SrS and ES on cooldown, leaving abilities on the table (as the class is designed now), I couldn't be as competitive; wouldn't be contributing my fair share on the damage side of things.)

Where I find the biggest problem is situational burst. Going back to Frost's example, on a fight like Horridon where there are several adds that appear over a somewhat-extended period of time, which need to be burned down as fast as possible, my hunter doesn't have that ability to put up some sustained burst every minute and a half or so. It's dots and Multi, or an LnL and TotH Multi/AS and dots, and Lynx rush, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Ultimately, I have 2-3 dots, 3-4 direct shots, and 3-4 talent abilities (depending on choice) that I can use to burn and control adds. That's 10+ abilities, and in the end, it doesn't matter too much which ones I use, because the net effect isn't that different.

What I'd like to see, without getting into specifics, is a change where an ability is removed from some place (baked into something else, removed, whatever) and its power redistributed to a different shot such as Explosive. Back in Cataclysm, it was easy to see a huge benefit to overall damage done with correct weaving of ES/AS during LnLs, but now it doesn't seem to be as critical. Since ES is closer to other abilities, I don't see the big differences that I did back then from when I wasn't "on" vs. when I was. And it hits home when I, as a hunter, feel powerless to really, really be a difference-maker when it comes to situations such as the four doors on Horridon. Yes, I can cook up a brew of high damage, but it isn't effective like it could be if there was a clear winner of an ability - even being used in tandem with another to amplify the effect - to make more clear "how to win or lose the situation" in those situations.

It wouldn't make the class easier to play, if rebalanced correctly. It would make the timing of everything, and the situational awareness of one's shot selection, more critical to his/her success with regard to damage.

And yes, like Frost said, movement is easier now than ever. The movement is never the problem for me - once I learn the mechanics, as a hunter that part's gravy. It's not feeling like I am doing anything wrong but it not feeling right - not being able to do what I feel that I should (and used to) be able to do to contribute to the raid / tanks / healers / etc. - where this becomes an issue for me. Which comes down to shot selection really mattering again.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I'm interested to see how Blizzard handles the issue.

The Godmother said...

@ Frost: I think 140 characters served a useful purpose: you need to choose your words carefully. As someone pointed out to me in that format, I don't speak for everybody. I don't think either of us do completely, and Ghostcrawler already knows that.

We're not talking about different things, but there is one basic factor here that divides us: perspective. The game is a vast world between our two viewpoints, after all.

Needless to say, I enjoy all the aspects of my class, and I don't see a problem with where things are because I don't count my rewards in the same way as you do.

The question then becomes what the Developers consider of both arguments.

The Godmother said...

@ Melanie. This isn't two different conversations. This is the same one, at different ends, and that matters.

It matters because what happens at the sharp end has inevitable ripples of consequence across the entire class, of which the hardcore are not the majority. The aim, it seems to me, should be to promote better play, to teach those people who do just spam one shot this is not the way to do things. The hardcore already know how to do this, or else you wouldn't be pushing for these 'changes.'

If 'removing bloat' does that, then it can only be a good thing, but NEVER at the expense of what the class' strengths, which do not simply extend into the world of endgame.

As Ghostcrawler also said yesterday, the game is created to be less fast food and more fine dining. That is a sentiment I find myself very happy to reinforce.

The Godmother said...

@ Katzbalger-Arthas: You say that the 'problems' are the fault of casual players. I would agree with you up unto a point, because I am one of that number now, by circumstance. Many people choose to be casual too, because they do not like the competitive nature of the 'hardcore' environment.

The point is, there's not ever an easy issue to blame, and when you begin to point fingers people get upset, and your discussion devolves into a Forum Rant.

Entitlement doesn't simply exist amongst the casual playerbase.

Anonymous said...

Actually I wouldn't class you as casual myself, I guess it depends what you mean by it and there's probably a few different interpretations. When I talk about casuals I'm not concerned about playtime, what kind of content you do or what you've achieved, I mean the amount of effort you put into being the best you can be. There's a world of difference to me between someone who may only have a few hours to play each week but bothers to learn how to play his class and tries to be as good at it as their time allows, and those who may well have more time but just don't care whether they're doing the best they can and expect to be able to do everything in the game anyway.
I agree entitlement isn't an attitude restricted to more casual players, many players who deem themselves hardcore expect blizzard to cater solely to them above the vast majority of the playerbase, which is both selfish and pretty dumb, obviously it'd be poor business sense for blizz!

I do feel however that being 'good' at your class should be reflected in what you can accomplish and how well you do.

Katzbalger-Arthas (US)

Frostheim said...

"...I don't count my rewards in the same way as you do"

Again, I'm talking about the reward for an optimally executed rotation. That needs to be higher dps -- I think the vast majority of the hunter world, and the game designers, would agree with me here : ) As a game design issue, there has to be a mechanical benefit to doing it right, and that benefit has to be large enough to justify the effort.

If knowledge of a job well done or some kind of warm fuzzies was the only reward, then it wouldn't matter if the dps for the best rotation was any higher than spamming buttons randomly. Maybe the game just gave you a glowing halo when you did it optimally to let you know. And the result would be that the majority of players wouldn't care.

The fact that good skill should result in better dps isn't really in question, I don't think. The only possible question is what percentage better does that dps need to be?

I don't think hunters are broken -- I do in fact think we're in a very good place. But I think there's still room for improvement and rotation button bloat is at the top of the list of things that could be better.

enigmachine said...

It's precisely because you think differently, that you would make a great columnist.

The Godmother said...

@Frost: 'That needs to be higher dps -- I think the vast majority of the hunter world, and the game designers, would agree with me here : )'

You are in a position to prove that statement, I am not. You have easy access to a far larger portion of the hunter world than I.

I'd be interested to hear what they think.

Anonymous said...

Homogenization is the result of PvP, not too many buttons.

Look at mages, who pretty much have two buttons only for 95% of their dps in most fights. (No disrespect to them.)

If an ability does too much damage, it can and therefore will be used in burst in PvP. If it does too little damage compared to another ability, it will become unused.

PvE balance is about dps, not damage and Blizzard can tweak damage up by changing cooldown, resource cost, dependencies on other shots, etc. without changing average dps.

However higher damage will cause higher complaints from PvP. So they won't do it.

Removing buttons therefore will not make the damage of our shots go much higher than today.

Anonymous said...

This is a great discussion taking place here, and I enjoy seeing everyone's different points of view.

I am a firm believer that we do not actually have a button bloat - yeah we have a lot of abilities, but I don't consider it bloated.

I feel that a lot of emphasis within our community is based on sims, due to the very strong tools available and the community that uses them - however, I think you are already 'rewarded' for optimal rotation with higher dps.. because, you are! not only that, since no fights exist in this vacuum sort of environment, the various factors taking place in fights is where the skill level is coming through. People have to also work around their particular team (or LFR group), to know when is the best time to use certain abilities...

Not sure if I am totally missing the point here :P I am sleepy..

I have spent a fair amount of time helping other hunters in increasing dps, and analyzing logs is one tool that can be easily used. Seeing the non-optimal rotations and their lower dps, kind of justifies that it is already a reward...

Frostheim said...

Keep in mind when we talk about button bloat, we're not talking about having too many buttons to manage our rotations effectively -- we're talking about how every new dps ability that is added makes the difference between abilities smaller.

You are indeed rewarded with more dps for performing your rotation optimally -- but only marginally more. You can execute your rotation horribly, ignoring multiple abilities completely, and only do slightly less dps.

The difference between using shots in the rotation or not are often less than the margin of error. I think the difference should be visible -- hunters shouldn't need sims and theorycrafters to know what it's best to use their level 90 talent in their rotation, for example. Currently they do.