Game: World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
Game Element: Warlock Class Overhaul
Discipline: Class Design
(This is part 2 of a multiple-part series. You can read part 1 over here. )
Today, we’ll continue on our journey to overhaul the Warlock class and how I introduced a novel resource system that is now used in many, many games.
Tighten your grips on your fel magic, and let’s continue with our journey of overhauling the Warlock class.
Let’s explore how I introduced a novel resource system that then got mass-adopted and became a cornerstone of many, many games.
Updates will be shared exclusively over at: https://gamedesignskills.com/funsmith-tavern/.
Chaotic Energy was created with a series of simple goal posts:
- Can we create a caster class which turrets but isn’t stationary
- Can we create a resource system that creates tension
- Can we create a flow that feels like playing music
The latter point is one I want to reinforce.
If Affliction is about multi-tasking and juggling, then I wanted Destruction to be about consistency, focus and decision-making.
All qualities that reflect the experiences of a pianist.
And why not?
There’s very little difference in your physical motions and the habitually used buttons in WoW are even called rotations by the players.
Traditionally, WoW caster classes suffered from a problem known as ‘Input lock’ – you sit there constantly mashing a button to ensure that your attacks started up one after another as closely as possible, with little or no lost downtime.
This dramatically favored players with lower latency.
In late Burning Crusade, I worked with Sam Lantinga to develop a client-side queuing system for spells.
As a former addon developer, we had discovered it was possible to glitch out the client-side command processing system and insert your next spellcast sooner, increasing your damage and reducing the number of times you had to push a spellcasting button by pushing a macro.
Known as stopcasting macros, I’ll leave the technical details to the side for now – but suffice to say it didn’t break any game rules – but it DID change the physical feeling of playing a caster.
What was once ‘button mash as quickly as possible’ became ‘press the button at as precise a timing as possible’.
However, I’m an intuitive, idealistic rationalist – and while each of these experiences was interesting and unique – neither model is part of the physical or mental fantasy of playing World of Warcraft.
Ultimately, all of these little input details are barriers to immersing yourself thoroughly into the experience of Warcraft, which is a game of exploration and combat, framed by a beautiful pathway of small stories.
Both spamming a button and precisely hitting a button put the focus more on the physical execution of the game than on the tactical or strategic experience of the game itself.
For those of you who get confused like I do – tactical is small bits, like getting out of the fire, while strategic is utilizing your talents, items and abilities to achieve a broad objective.
Chaotic Energy was a new passive effect I added.
It increased mana regeneration by 625% (So your mana bar recharged fully every 20 seconds), modified the cost of all basic spells and removed Life Tap.
Chaotic Energy introduced an interesting and important dynamic – combining two principles very important to me as both a designer and a human being: pressure and forgiveness.
Because chaotic energy would rapidly overflow your mana bar, excessive distraction or inability to fully utilize your energy pool was punished.
This provided a sense of urgency to be acting and casting.
Because chaotic energy regenerated at a steady rate, and the rate of expenditure was faster than the rate of regeneration, it was okay if you occasionally went a fraction of a second without casting.
This allowed small mistakes – and small tactical adjustments (such as moving out of the fire) to not heavily penalize your damage numbers.
Compare this with Life Tap. If you are out of mana – you MUST be pressing Life Tap to keep optimal damage going.
If you take a break of any sort – you’re making a mistake. This type of pressure is relentless, unforgiving and unnecessary.
The combination of Pressure and Forgiveness showed promise as a potential designer’s wet dream.
Both positive and negative reinforcement in the same system, guiding players to mix both internal (rotation) and external (situational) awareness – along with the breathing room to make the right decision – rather than simply focus on button mashing as fast as they possibly can.
I knew this system had immense potential. Possibly even the capability to become the baseline for the healthiest casting system in WoW – at least within the context of a dungeon or raid fight.
However, the first version of Chaotic Energy had a problem.
The Burning system worked like Combo Points on a rogue – Ember Tap or Chaos Bolt dumped all of your built-up power.
Then, you would sit there with nothing to do. Frantic build-up. Massive release. Emptiness.
What did this mean?
Consulting the Council
I turned to the council and shared this experiment with them.
I confessed that I hadn’t played a Rogue – and saw some awesome potential for using this – but why did this work there and not here.
Fortunately, one of the players was a highly analytical rogue player – and explained it quite clearly.
The rogue worked because you already have a constant filler action – moving and repositioning.
Trying to stay behind the target kept most rogues busy.
This wouldn’t work here, would it?
A quick test at adding a backstab bonus to Fel Flame confirmed that – positioning bonuses aren’t wise.
So what to do instead?
Another Warlock suggested a small change: what if it took longer to reach maximum charge – but you could spend your ‘Burning’ power in separate chunks.
It was like a lightbulb illuminated a dark room in my mind.
There was no need to replicate the rogue-like feel entirely: casters are not about commitment, caster classes are about decision-making.
Setting this as my new anchor point, I used buff stacks counting up to 40 to represent this new resource and decided to see what laid beyond.
Burning Embers and the Music of Destruction
This pivot proved to be the turning point for the Warlock revamp.
Using a concept that I’ll call ‘Capacitance’ (like an electrical capacitor) – I realized most Warcraft abilities had been locked into two camps.
Small time scale – things done within 5-10 seconds
Large time scale – things done once every 2-3 minutes or more
Regular rotation abilities fit into the former, while pets, cooldowns and so-on fit into the latter.
Now, the reader may proclaim -‘wait there’s totally 30 second cooldown abilities’ – and you’re right.
However, cooldown isn’t what this is about – its about the overall time-scale of decision making.
Think about it a bit more:
- You have your super low or zero cooldown abilities that you spam
- You have your cooldown abilities which replace what you would be spamming
- You have your long cooldown abilities which you use at the ‘right moment’
While you can perform this dance better or worse, ultimately, you are performing the Designer’s dance.
Your ‘skill check’ is how well you can perform their ideal dance. This really struck home when I saw the first AI controlled combat bots devastate the average damage of a player in WoW.
WoW was rewarding execution – not decision making.
So I set out to create a class that heavily encouraged strong decision making.
Enabling Decision Making
What are the criteria for decision making in a game like wow?
- There have to be different answers
- There have to be different situations where each answer is correct
- There has to be ambiguity to allow player choice to be relevant
- There has to be flexibility to choose when and how to provide your answer
Looking at mechanics in the pre-MoP Warlock era – 1 and 2 definitely existed.
You kick or spell lock a spell and you shadowburn a low health target. 3 exists just by nature of the sheer complexity of the WoW experience.
No two raid fights are exactly alike, just like no two attempts are exactly alike either.
So the missing factor had to be #4: a lack of flexibility.
My favorite example of this missing principle is the Rogue combo point system.
Rogues have some valid choices with their combo points – burst damage, attack speed, etc.
However, they don’t have much of a choice on WHEN to use those skills.
Either they push the button before their energy bar fills up – or they wasted some combat potential.
However, the rogue points at the right solution – what if, instead of capping out at five, you could spend up to five combo points – and have a cap of much, much more?
This was where I went with the Warlock.
The Capacitor Class
While I framed it like a new idea, in truth the Warlock had been a capacitor class from the start.
Soul Shards, which were harvested from a short skill test (Drain Soul) unlocked more powerful and unique abilities for Warlocks as far back as WoW Alpha.
Summoning other players, casting a super high damage nuke (Soul Fire) and allowing you to resummon a pet were all things you could do only a limited number of times unless you passed the Soul Shard skill check – or had extras built up earlier.
It made sense to make this a core mechanic of the class.
So I expanded this concept – particular in destruction – by giving Conflagrate two charges.
This allowed the destruction warlock to wait a few seconds before using their conflagrate – or let it pool completely to burst two conflagrate spells back to back later.
There was now clean rotation to Destruction. Immolate, Conflagrate, Incinerate X times, Repeat once, Chaos Bolt… or save Chaos Bolt for later.
The best part?
It didn’t change the overall DPS of the class, unless the Warlock player took advantage of situational bonuses (monster vulnerabilities or self-triggered proc effects) – but that was exactly the kind of self-defined skill I wanted destruction to reward.
Again, let me reinforce this incredibly important point: Twin charges and Burning embers put the control of WHEN to push buttons back in the hands of the Warlock player, not the designer.
UI & Support
In a previous expansion, the Warlock Soul Shard inventory management game (which was never fun anyways) had been removed and replaced with a 3-shard UI element.
It made sense to upgrade this element to support the new gameplay mechanic.
While I could simply recolor the mana bar and make it fill faster for Chaotic Energy, it didn’t make sense for soul shards to simply ‘pop’ into existence after pressing. Incinerate several times.
I dropped by Kyle’s office and asked him how much work it would be to support 1/10th of shards, instead of only whole shards.
Kyle: “Supporting it in code is easy. We’ll just multiply the values by 10. However, the UI work is much, much harder to do?”
Alex: “Because creating UI is hard? I could probably help code it up if necessary.”
Kyle: “No…. because the UI artist is thoroughly slammed.”
I went to speak with the UI and Gameplay Programming leads (who happened to share an office).
Pat: “What’s this I’ve been hearing about a class rebuild?”
Alex: “Warlocks have been in shabby shape for a long time.
We are taking the risk of making a lot of changes in one expansion to overhaul them completely – and see if it brings new life to the class.”
Pat: “Well, the other class designers are still figuring out what features they need for this expansion.
If you can bring us a complete list of everything you want to do soon, we’ll get it done.”
UI Lead (I’m sorry, I forgot your name T_T): “The UI Team is pretty slammed… but if you can get a list of what custom resources you want, we’ll figure it out.
The only catch is – we need to know *all* of the changes at once – we aren’t going to have time to go back and add more later.”
Pat: “Just get Ghostcrawler to sign off on the list of what you need and we’ll get it done.”
Alex: “Well…. then I guess I need to figure out Demonology first.”
In my quest to improve the gaming experience for the “affliction” warlocks, I recognized the burden of incessantly spamming keys and diligently endeavored to reduce this pressure load.
However, my efforts resulted in extensive changes that, despite being loved by players, sparked a backlash from the lead developer a few days before launch.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson: implementing significant changes can be daunting and met with uphill resistance.
It highlighted the importance of having allies and advocates who share your vision and can help navigate the challenges to ultimately bring these bold and transformative ideas to fruition.
Continued next time…