Friday, September 06, 2013

HUNTER WEEK :: The Eton Rifles

And now, the hardest post I've written for a while.

There's a basic problem with change. It means stuff never stays the same.

Like it or not, evolution is inevitable. That means dinosaurs like me whose brains were programmed back in Vanilla have a stark choice to adapt or unsub. The fact I'm still here, after all this time, makes me believe I must have learnt something in eight years, and not simply about moving out of the crap. I'm not here to talk about what's already been altered in the Hunter class this morning. My job instead is to decide what we don't have that we could benefit from in the future. Herein lies a basic problem with the current evolutionary process.

Hunters are not evolving into more sophisticated creatures. The reality is quite the opposite.

As we discussed a few weeks ago, Blizzard are not happy with increasing the number of abilities classes possess each time we move in to a new expansion. There has been a groundswell of complaint using key phrases like 'ability bloat': the fact that there's TOO MUCH to do. Lots of buttons never get pressed at all, or end up as keybinds, and this means that there is a gulf that appears between those capable of handling the sophistication and those who simply never touch the spells at all. Blizzard's task is to strike a middle ground: to allow two distinct styles of play (PvE/PvP) with the same 'toolkit' of abilities. Oh and before people begin the 'PvE shouldn't get nerfed because of PvP' argument... we're not going to get that kind of revamp, because no class will. What then remains is what we can lose, and how that would affect the class if we did. I have produced a graphic to demonstrate the point.

Abilities from Wowhead. Wanton destruction from me.

Currently each spec uses a selection of base abilities tied to specialist shots available in each tree. At present Beast Mastery has only two 'specialist' choices (Kill Command/Bestial Wrath) after the last round of PvP 'balancing.' Survival and Marksmanship have 2/3 respectively, which could clearly be reduced. We could happily all survive with two buttons apiece, using the same 'fillers' (Arcane, Cobra) and lose abilities right off the bat. There is an argument for combining Disengage/Deterrence into one ability (because if you're taking damage you'll want to move, and nothing says move more than a giant leap backwards) and losing shots like Concussive, Scatter and Tranquillising altogether, because they could be perceived to be useless in PvE and only valuable in PvP.

As I wrote that last paragraph I could imagine the rage of many, many people reading the words and wondering how I could be so unassumingly brutal with a class I love. The hard fact however is this is what people are suggesting: I just picked the buttons I thought I pressed least in the previous week. The problem for Blizzard right now has absolutely nothing to do with what skills they could conceivably remove, its the reaction to what happens when they do. When you look at a revamp in those terms it is time to grasp the fundamental fact that we can't just take stuff away any more, because someone will get upset. Is the only way forward to throw away the entire template and start again? I don't think we need to be that brutal, I believe a return to a basic set of core values could be the answer.

From the much missed 35 Yards Out. My tree of choice for many, many many raids.

The basic problem with Hunters is twofold: damage and distinction. Despite Blizzard's best efforts to make each spec comparable to each other, Hunters seem to fixate on the numbers, deferring to the most damage for raiding regardless of abilities given. Of course this isn't true for many who just use the class as relaxation or for farming; for them the issues seem to stem with the identity each spec possesses. Over time basic utility has been sublimated, becoming less and less about the spells and abilities wielded and more about the level of gear you're wearing. Somewhere along the line, the three distinct hunter 'identities' have altered, and if Blizzard simply continue to pare away piecemeal at spells and abilities as they have of late, this may only get worse. What I'd like to see is is a shift back to some 'core' Hunter values:

  • More focus on Pet use, specific to each current Spec (not just Exotics for Beast Masters)
  • Clear and distinct mechanics for each Spec (using Arcane/Cobra as 'foundation' shots)
  • Vanity 'rewards' distinct to each class at Level x 10, plus an emphasis on progressive training.
  • Continued investment in abilities not simply during levelling but also at End Game to encourage learning/skill improvement
  • Less reliance on gear, move towards a focus on ability

Pets are the cornerstone of the Hunter's toolkit: they allow us to damage without taking it ourselves, they can tank when needed, and currently offer a range of benefits that have been designed to support raiding. I think it is time that every Spec had is own 'speciality' group of pets, not simply the Beast Masters, and those pets could be tailored to augment the basic abilities given to each tree, so that the Hunter could gain benefit not simply in a group environment. I'd also like to see a ground-up rethink of the pet bar and the basic abilities each pet is given. I suspect that there is movement not just for simplification here (do we REALLY need Cower as a standard ability anymore?) but to allow systems similar to Spirit Bond to be created for each Spec. Hunters need to understand from Level 1 that their pet is a part of their gameplay, and so every class should be awarded a benefit from keeping that pet not simply alive but active.

We should fight to maintain a distinct 'mechanic' for each spec, based on the minimum amount of 'basic' shots learnt in the early levels. Giving Hunters Steady Shot at Level 3 is a waste of time, when most will want an instant cast shot like Arcane because it gives the feel of immediate damage. If you are going to teach anything in the first 10 levels let it be that Arcane uses Focus and Cobra will regenerate it, and reinforce that mantra until we reach 100. Build the three specs around those two key pieces of information, so you don't alienate your existing player base and allow the new players to have a clean, simple mechanical basis to your gameplay Most importantly of all, MAKE FOCUS REGEN MATTER at low levels so players do not get lazy and assume you can simply spam one shot until something dies.

When we reach L10, don't give us a ton of spells and abilities to deal with all at once, reward us with something fun instead, and do the same for every 10th level as we go on. Give us coats for our pets to wear that we can pick up in different colours and co-ordinate with our tabards. Consider using the offhand slot we have for something hunter-specific (maybe a net or a whip as was suggested earlier in the week in this column.) Don't just settle for a special Hunter quest at L20 and 50, give us something to keep us going through Outland and Northrend too, that will be usable not simply as we level but when we're done. I'd even argue that the Monk 'Continue Your Training' mechanic would be a great go-to method of making sure people grasp the key abilities and how they come together. Pick three areas across Azeroth not being used, assign a Spec to each 'hub' and let people port there every 10 levels to earn a reward based on understanding what ability does what.

This learning shouldn't stop at Max level either. We have PvP Battlegrounds to help hone skills, how about PvE Training Academies? The 'Proving Grounds' coming in 5.4 will, I know, be a massive success and help players learn how to be better. Let's keep that momentum going with Academies popping up across the Continents. Present a specific 'Hunter Academy' challenge per patch for people to complete, so they can earn a 'badge' to prove how capable a Hunter they are, and at the end of each Expansion be rewarded with something totally unique and hunter-related. It will encourage people not simply to grasp their own spec but the other two, to become a true Master in all senses of the word. The key here is to keep reminding people that being better does require not simply practice, but a basic understanding of the mechanics they need to grasp to make that happen.

Finally, there MUST be a move a way from the reliance on gear as a crutch. The need to allow people to level quickly by simplifying the process with heirlooms and increased regen is a dangerous precedent that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Making players understand that to gain reward requires effort and ability should not be undermined by handing them everything immediately, or by trivialising the entire levelling experience (which is becoming ever more likely with the introduction of XP boosters.) This is a GAME which you need to LEARN TO PLAY. Streamlining the process by removing abilities that confuse or are redundant is all well and good, but only if it is supported by clear instructions on what to do and the consequences that occur if you don't.

In the end, I love my class as it is, but I understand enough about what has happened before to grasp that we need change, and soon. I don't envy Mr Street or his compatriots one bit in the task ahead of them: this will not be easy and people WILL get cross. All I can hope is by stating my case I can encourage more people to do the same, without anger or annoyance, and that all these points can then be heard as the Expansion approaches.