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I think it’s safe now to make mild reference to The Last Jedi without any protest about spoilers, right? There’s something about Blizzard’s post of their design philosophy for the next expansion that puts me in mind of the grumpy, aged Luke Skywalker sitting in exile, announcing that it’s time for the Jedi to end and that this won’t turn out the way you expect.

The vision this time around, it appears, is ‘class uniqueness’. A return to the day when different specs that had the same broad role could be better or worse at different aspects of that role – so there might be a clear best “AoE melee DPS”, but they would then be surpassed at “single target burst melee DPS” by another class, who in turn would bow to a different master of “sustained melee DPS”. It’s a return to classes having unique buffs and abilities, to the glory days when there was a welcome spot for the shaman bringing Bloodlust, you wanted a druid to put a pink paw on everyone and mages were respected and loved for dishing out free food and portals home at the end of the raid. In short, it’s tearing up the whole “bring the player, not the class” idea that resulted Blizzard homogenising the classes into nearly forty different specs that really come down to just four roles (tank, healer, melee DPS, ranged DPS) with little more than cosmetic differences.

I like this idea. It’s actually the first thing I’ve heard about Battle For Azeroth that makes me look forward to playing in the next WoW expansion.

But… it’s going to be a hard trick to pull off meaningfully. If the difference between classes isn’t significant, then it’s just going to come across as bullshit. If it is significant, then there will be clearly optimal classes or specs to bring to certain situations, and we know how players react to anything less than optimal, or anything they’re told is less than optimal by their favourite theorycrafting Word of God website. Heaven forbid I should bring a sustained DPS assassination rogue to a fight where Icy Veins says a burst DPS subtlety build is called for.

There are ways around this. There’s a margin between ‘viable’ and ‘optimal’ that personal preference can live in, at least if we put the sort of guys who demand ‘optimal or GTFO’ on ignore. The cutting edge, hardest content may well demand optimal choices to be successful but the relative handful of players who do that are the ones most likely to be willing to swap specs (or characters) as needed. Alternatively, Blizzard could go back to designing encounters that can be beaten in a variety of ways depending on exactly what tools the raid leader has to hand. In my Molten Core/Onyxia/Blackwing Lair raiding days each guild had its own tactics for the raid bosses, driven at least in part by what classes their regular raiders played. It might come as a shock to have to think “how do WE beat this fight?” instead of watching someone else’s YouTube video and copying the moves, but that shift might actually make for a better game. It can work. I just see the danger that when freedom to choose between meaningfully different options meets ‘there is one true way to do this’ design, the conclusion is that some of those choices don’t work – which means they are ‘gotchas’ and not a meaningful choice at all.

I’d like to hope that Blizzard can thread the eye of the needle here, and give us both meaningful choice of characters and a game where all of those choices work out effectively. I want to be Luke Skywalker at the end of the Last Jedi, with a renewed understanding of the old ways and a new generation to take them forward . At the moment all we have is a vision statement – over 2018 we’ll see how that translates into the actual game.

Here’s hoping.

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