22 August 2008

Utility v damage = flawed argument

If you are sick of reading increasingly hysterical posts about the state of shadow priests in Wrath, this blog is not for you. The trend is set to continue.

But today you get a reprieve. Well, of sorts. The dwarf priest has put out a call to arms for shadow priests everywhere, and I really can't improve on her eloquent words. I urge you to read the post, pick up your pitch forks and start marching.

Today, instead, I want to get something off my chest.

There is an accepted wisdom in raiding theory that dps classes should be balanced around two things: damage and utility. Some classes provide pure, raw damage, but don't really add much to the raid, while others — primarily the hybrids — bring buffs and debuffs to enhance the performance of their party and raid while delivering a lower personal damage output. Think of the synergy between a rogue and an enhancement shaman, for example.

This trade-off is practically set in stone. It's as if the value of a class's utility is inversely proportional to their dps potential.

So you end up with a two-tier structure where some classes are designed to top the dps charts while others are held back in support roles.

Ret paladins have just felt the nerf bat on the beta forums for this very reason — they were deemed to be doing too much damage. They're just a support class after all, let's knock them back in their place before they get ideas above their station.

Poor ret paladins. But there's a very good reason for the nerf according to the accepted logic. If utility classes could provide top notch damage as well as utility, then raids would stack them at the expense of their pure-damage cousins.

This is a bad argument by any standard, but in Wrath it only looks worse.
For a start, the distinction between utility and damage is conspicuously fuzzy. Take locks as an example, who currently vie for the honour of top dog dps. What is banish, if not utility? Or enslave? Or curse of elements, or shadow embrace? Or, for that matter, what about seed of corruption, a spell that makes aoe situations trivial. Not to mention that hybrid classes have only situational crowd control.

The fact is, the 'pure' dps classes do bring utility (admittedly, to varying degrees); it's just more situational.

But the fundamental flaw in the concept of balance is the assumption that there is a perfect raid makeup, some kind of paradigm of classes and specs. In 25-man raids, it's easy to find a spot for almost everyone, and that's how it should be — every class and spec should have the potential to fit and perform in a raid. But that doesn't mean guilds should be forced to roster specifically for it, nor that an imbalanced guild shouldn't be able to take on a specific encounter.

Three things in the expansion will throw this flawed design into further relief.

More 10-man raids
Small, casual guilds will flourish in Wrath, being able to make steady, rewarding progress through the array of 10-man raids without having to make the difficult transition to 25-man raiding. These guilds aren't the type to recruit specific dps classes, or try to find the perfect raid makeup, and in 10-man raids that's a futile activity anyway. You simply can't have balanced representation of the classes when their are so many permutations of roles and specs. You are forced to make sacrifices — casters get an elemental shaman but the melee loose out on a kitty, and so on. Similarly, some utility will be wasted in the wrong makeup — what use is shadow weaving if there's no lock in the group? In Wrath, every class needs the potential to function at its best, because there won't always be locks and rogues around to make up the slack.

Greater class utility
While I haven't studied every class in the beta, there does seem to be a conscious effort to improve class utility — and it's not confined to the classes usually considered 'utility'. Frost mages, for example, who right now probably fall in the pure-dps camp, could become the new shadow priests in Wrath, thanks to the mana regenerating potential of the water elemental. And hunters are getting some buffs to their group abilities as well, on top of some shiny new ones. Their dps is unlikely to suffer as a result.

This is not to be confused with the time-honoured argument of who does the most damage. I'm not concerned with balance between mages and locks, for example. Quite frankly, I don't care who tops the charts.

Similarly, I don't mind that other classes are getting extra utility. I think it's a positive thing. But if you're going to keep support classes in their place, you'd damn well better have a good argument for why.

Raid-wide buffs
This is something Blizzard is looking at across the board. Some buffs have already gone raid wide (like the water elemental's mana regen), while others are still being considered.

It's a curious dilemma. On the one hand, moving a party buff raid wide makes the buff more powerful — and therefore, more desirable. But at the same time, it makes that class more expendable. Why bring two or three shadow priests to a raid when you only need one?

In an environment where raids could be tempted to stack multiple utility classes for their buffs, it makes sense to temper their damage and balance that temptation. That's the reason why many buffs don't stack.

But if a single buff can reach the whole raid, suddenly you are in a situation where utility classes are at a distinct disadvantage.

If utility buffs do end up raid wide, the only way to level the playing field for those classes is to raise their damage potential.

The argument for balancing utility with damage is looking thinner every day as Blizzard shakes up the skills and talents available to the dps classes and re-examines its raid philosophy. It's no longer acceptable to have a two-tier system of damage classes. Utility is something that classes should bring to encounters on top of their damage output, not instead of it.

Now maybe there should still be compromises — but these should be by choice, not by design. There are so many factors that affect dps, it doesn't have to mean the end of variety, synergy and co-operation within a group. Perhaps you would have to spec for utility (like survival hunters) or gear for it, or maybe providing your utility simply compromises your actual damage output.

As shadow priests push for a level playing field in Wrath, I really hope we don't settle for handouts like a glyph to fix our troubles, or minor utility tweaks. We deserve so much more, as do all the utility classes.


Steven said...

ya, im starting to feel the same as you, I feels like blizz focused more on making priests better pvp and forgot about pve.

and as a pvper, that still pisses me off

Captain The First said...

While it is not in the nature of my warlock main. Lots of love with this topic.

Complain a lot on the beta forums and make a compelling argument and maybe blizzard will help shadow priests with their spell coefficients... because realistically that's where most priests fall way behind the rest of the classes.

Andrew M said...

I don't feel you here. Like if you can bring an enhancement shaman and a ret pally that do the same dps as my rogue to a 10 man, then how the hell is my rogue ever going to get an invite to anything.

We have one minor bit of utility, other than interupts we bring nothing to a raid but dps. Who's gonna want a rogue if that dps isn't better than classes which can provide a wide range of powerful buffs?

The said...

I find it interesting that Warlocks were used as an example of a flaw in an argument when they in fact prove it.

Warlocks were initially designed as a utility class, with the aim of debuffing mobs or buffing players. In pre-BC, especially with 40 man raids they were unrepresented as there was not enough different utility effects available, so in TBC they had there damage buffed to be equivilent to a pure damage dealer. What then happened is exactly the point of the argument and warlocks were stacked - since they brought the utility and dps, where other class's didn't - mainly mages, but rogues and hunters to a degree also.

In Wrath, they seem to be trying to give everyone utility instead - but this is simply creating a hemogenous set of class's, without distinct advantages/disadvantages. Some may like this, but I think it's simply pandering to bug number syndrome and repressing players ability to differentiate themselves.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with the OP. The rogues complaint carries no weight. You said it yourself, even if your dps was the same as a Retadin or a Enhancement Shammie your greatest utility is going to be your interupts, among other things that a Pali/Shaman can't do.

As far as warlocks go they unfortunately shared the same fate as most palis in Vanilla WoW when it came to raiding, buffbot/healthstones/summoning. What a rediculous role that was. At least palis could heal, even if they were the worst healers in the game.

Despite what some posters call a lack of individuality, increased utility just makes it harder to Max/min. What a wonderful thing is that. Let the best player get the raid spot instead of the "right" toon. Let SP and RP have there dps, all the pure dps classes are getting their utility.

Crob said...

'Pure' dps classes DO bring utility, but like the OP said, "to varying degrees" and "it's more situational". Doesn't this warrant different DPS capabilities? If classes all had the same dps, wouldn't you rather have the one with the highest utility with helpful abilities that are always used instead of the class with the lowest utility with helpful abilities that are only used once or twice an instance?

These utility disparities are supposedly being reduced in WotLK, so you expect the DPS differences to be reduced as well, correct? Doesn't that follow the same logic that you are disputing?

Jamie said...

I don't think you are wrong, Andrew, but I think that you are coming about it from the wrong angle.

The thing isn't that rogues need to be kept higher DPS to balance, so much as rogues need to be given utility. Because as you say, right now, they are a one trick pony, and thus, they struggle.

Anonymous said...

The argument only works going forward, with the changes that are coming (mostly, I bet, to allow 10 man progression with the inevitably more odd-shaped groups).

As things stand, utility classes have sweet abilities that a) are ALWAYS useful*, and b) stack, come in several types (auras, etc), or are group effects. In all cases multiples are a good thing.

Toss in the ability to heal and rez and yeah, you do have to give something up.

That's not to say shadow priests weren't busted in TBC. Top of the meters baby raids, scaling so poorly they were in the basement late. Neither was good.
*Stuff like interupts and sheeping is unneeded most of the time. When you need it you REALLY need it but it's a different beast than providing WF or non-stop mana regen.

typhoonandrew said...

"If you are sick of reading increasingly hysterical posts about the state of shadow priests in Wrath, this blog is not for you"

I'm not sick of it, in fact I want SP to be a new main, but to do so will have to be buffed to be comparable to Warlocks.