Thursday, March 4, 2010

Feral Tank Q&A with Ghostcrawler: Then, Now, and Soon™

Ghostcrawler's comments from last July as part of the Class Q&A Series on Druids probably still represent, overall, the most current and accurate window into Blizzard's current design goals for the class. Although, at the time of writing, there have been a glut of blue posts pertaining to Druid tanking in the first week of March 2010, I'll reserve my commentary on the new posts for a future date.

This post is intended to bring newcomers up to speed with where the class and, more specifically, our role as Bear Tanks stands.

I know this post of his is from last July--I was not actively playing during that time, but it seems that the overall design goals are still relevant today and will probably remain relevant as we move into Cataclysm. I will only focus on the parts of the Q&A session with Ghostcrawler (lead game designer for World of Warcraft) that affect feral tanks.

The biggest surprise is the hinting toward completely eliminating the cost of changing forms. This could really spice up the class and open up very interesting new play styles. It would also harmonize with the stated intention of continuing convergence for Druid melee itemization.

Note, all italic emphasis on the following text is mine, to draw attention to certain parts.

Form Flow Play Style

Q: What is it that makes them unique compared to all other classes?

Ghostcrawler: Forms is the big answer. The druid versions are more meaningful than other class equivalents in the game, such as Stances or Presences. One could argue they are too meaningful, because players sometimes don’t want to use any other form but “theirs." Perhaps the most unusual facet of the druid forms is that they use three different resource systems depending on the form, and these are not reset when they shift. A leveling druid can shift out of cat form to heal themselves, then shift into bear form while their mana regenerates.

Here there seems to be a renewal of focus on the shifting of forms.

Q: What do we think about making spells like Warstomp and Innervate usable while in forms?

Ghostcrawler: We like the fact that Innervate requires shifting. We want druids to shift more. [Emphasis mine --Ed.] Warstomp I could see an argument to allow in forms since it’s nice (but not mandatory) that racial benefits are useful to a variety of classes.

Q: Can you describe for us what the intended identity and versatilities of the Tree of Life druids are supposed to be?

Ghostcrawler: This is a pretty philosophical answer here. If you only read one answer in this Q&A, you might want to check out this one.

. . .

In addition to having to give up utility in order to heal as a Tree of Life, we have become less enamored with druids locking themselves into one form.
[Emphasis mine --Ed.] In fact, you really never see the basic tauren or night elf druid form (you know, the one that actually shows off the awesome armor art) because all druids are in cat, bear, tree, or moonkin form nearly 100% of the time. I’m not saying we would just cut Tree of Life from the game. It’s been around awhile and for better or worse, it’s part of World of Warcraft now. However, we could see taking the druid in a direction where shifting was much more common and easy to do. . . .

Q: Do we plans to alter how the GCD works for form changing so that shifting into a form is as easy as shifting out of one?

Ghostcrawler: As I mentioned, long-term we’d love to get druids shifting more often, which means shifting has to be less painful. I don’t know for sure that changing the GCD needs to be a part of that, but it could be.

I was very happy to read this. I think the important thing to take away from this is that Blizzard clearly wants Druids to change forms more, and are investigating removing transformation costs. I've recently argued in favor of reducing the costs and increasing the incentives for form shifting, and believe it would allow an interesting style of dynamic play (especially for solo play such as in world PvP or leveling).

I'd like to think I've been an advocate of the "form flow" play style since I was making my flying bear maneuver videos. I tend toward this style now at the cost of constantly sitting down to renew my mana pool.

When I'm not tanking (leveling, for example), I find myself starting pulls on large clusters of humanoid mobs (think Dark Iron Dwarves in Eastern Wetlands) with a Wrath or Starfire on Mob A followed by an immediate Entangling Roots / Moonfire combo, then switch to Cat form to stack DoTs on Mob B, then dropping Nature's Grasp on myself, rooting Mob B, backing up to get a little breathing room, blow my Enrage cooldown, Maul Mobs C and D until the rage runs out, drop an FFF on Mob A which is now root-free and incoming, maybe Bash Mob C, switch back to Cat form to Rake Mob A, hit Mob B with a Rip, then back to Bear form for another FFF on A and Maul to finish up B and A, blow Lifeblood and cycle Mauls then back to Cat form to finish dismantling the remaining mobs.

When I don't run out of mana, this dance can be quite fun. It's a mess, but it's a lot of fun to play. I should make a video of this.

By trying to squeeze every last drop of utility from all of my various forms I can usually take on groups of 4-5 mobs that are 2-3 levels higher than I am.

Basically, as a feral druid, I am always trying to push past my level for combat effectiveness, and removing the form changing cost entirely would allow me to play even more effectively in this "Form Flow" style whenever I'm not tanking.

Clearly we have not yet seen the changes to the cost of form shifting indicated by GC last summer, but hopefully we can look forward to them in Cataclysm.

Feral Talent Tree

Community Team: We are going to switch gears from the ranged caster damaging druids to the up close and personal Feral talent tree.

A number of players have brought up questions regarding the over-arching goal of the feral talent tree. In the past they were able to change forms regularly and cast spells and then go back into a Feral form to continue playing. Once we merged their gear with rogues this playstyle was significantly reduced in effectiveness. As it currently stands, even with the low mana pool, they feel their mana regeneration is very poor in comparison to other hybrid classes like Shaman and Paladins which in turn continues to minimize feral druids’ ability to cast spells which they feel is pushing them further and further away from the hybrid playstyle.

Q: What are our intended goals for the playstyle of feral druids?

Ghostcrawler: The druid class overall is intended to be flexible, and we feel that it is. What we don’t want is a class that can do all things with a single spec -- do damage like a rogue, then tank if the MT falls down, then battle rez the MT and heal her back up, etc. That might sound like a lot of fun, but that’s because you’re fulfilling the role of half the raid all on your own (which means it’s less fun for everyone else watching you be a superstar). Every cat worth their salt will shift out to cast Rebirth or Innervate. But in order to justify cats doing credible melee damage, we felt like they had to give up some of their ability to tank, cast, and heal. Note than you can still take a more hybrid-focused build. Players don’t often do that though because they’d rather do one thing really well. Now I will say that long term something we’d love to do is get rid of shifting costs altogether. We want to see druids in lots of different forms -- more on this in a minute.

I think it's worth pointing out here that GC's comments specifically pertain to the raid / dungeon experience, and not to solo play such as when leveling. It strikes me that being able to be very self-sufficient is the principle advantage of playing a hybrid class, when it comes to leveling.

Bear Tanking

Community Team: Bear tanks have often felt inferior compared to the other tanks.

Q: How do we feel druid tanks are doing and do we have any immediate changes planned?

Ghostcrawler: We think bears have felt inferior because for a long time we basically said “You are designed to be inferior.” Sometimes old perceptions die hard. Bears are not inferior tanks in Ulduar and it’s possible their survivability is too high in 3.2.

Community Team: Savage Defense has been the source of a number of debates as players feel it is somewhat lackluster and doesn’t provide enough of a benefit, especially in PvP.

Q: Do we have any plans to change and/or improve Savage Defense?

Ghostcrawler: We’re pretty happy with Savage Defense for now. It accomplishes its goals, which were to make dps stats more useful on leather and to keep bears from hitting the armor cap so easily. You might consider it lackluster if you’re counting on it saving your life, but it does account for a lot of damage over the course of a boss fight.

Here again we see reiterated commitment to itemization convergence for feral Druids and Rogues. I wonder what their thoughts are with respect to how useless these stats are for low level tanks who don't have Savage Defense. The mid-20s was a nightmare for me in terms of tanking as there were so few Bear skills introduced and almost no tanking leather. I'm still wearing legs from Deadmines. Ugh.


Q: Do we have any plans to improve how players obtain relic items such as a relic token?

Ghostcrawler: The alternative to “clutter to loot tables” is that they go on vendors. We view vendors as an absolute last resort. They are there as a hedge against being very unlucky with drops and to give players motivation to do bosses even when that boss no longer drops any upgrades for them. When the best relics are available on vendors, then every druid will have those relics quickly. They essentially just become part of the core identity of the class rather than an upgrade that you get at some point along your progression. The best solution is probably something where a boss has a 10% (or whatever) chance to drop a relic in addition to its normal loot table.

The difficulty of getting relics appears to remain baked into the game design for the foreseeable future.

Community Team: Tanking druids have regularly expressed complaints on how their tanking gear was homogenized but statistics like Block and Parry do not help them and defense provides a very marginal benefit.

Q: Do we have plans to make these statistics more helpful for them since they are on a wide variety of tanking gear?

Ghostcrawler: We think it’s interesting that a bear and a warrior tank might look at the same piece of gear and place different values on it. That’s one of the elements that makes looting interesting and rewards players who understand their class. You shouldn’t take a ring because it says “TANK” on it. You should take it because it benefits you. And really, when players say “wide variety of tanking gear” they really mean rings, neck, cloak, and possibly trinkets. Currently we’re in a world where tanks emphasize Stamina and Armor as much as they possibly can, which makes other stats feel lame by comparison. But that will likely not always be the case, and we kind of doubt it will be as much of an extreme in the Coliseum.

The last statement follows from their announced intention to further blur the boundaries between (and ultimately seek convergence for) DPS and tanking leathers. No surprise here, but it's good to see it reiterated.

Q: Have we considered providing more tanking leather and to prevent extra loot clutter possibly finding ways for Balance and Restoration druids to use solely cloth item since they often use them already?

Ghostcrawler: No. Druids are a leather-using class. We are just going to have to make three types of leather (melee, ranged and healing). You have to understand that even though we have pushed bears and cats farther apart, we still consider them to be part of the same spec. We can’t get into the business of itemizing for niches within a particular spec or we’re just going to have too many items per tier. I can see the argument for having tanking and dps leather and making the casters use cloth. That’s just a different design and we currently like for certain classes to be associated with certain types of armor. We like that druids look different from say priests or mages (even ignoring the forms thing). We like that we can kit druid tier piece armor to look a certain way.

Also note that if we buffed bear mitigation through more tanking-oriented leather that we’d just have to nerf them in other ways. In my experience, most bears end up with “tanking leather” anyway because they want to gem and enchant their bear gear differently. Having one set of gear that you wear as cat or bear isn’t really feasible in Ulduar.

This follows from previous posts GC has made regarding Druid itemization, so is not much of a surprise. I'm very glad that they're holding firm on the block / parry stats and keeping the distinctions between various tanking classes more architectural than aesthetic. However, the explicitly expressed notion that there will be melee, ranged, and healing leathers, and that they'll be distinguishable for people who know their class, is noteworthy. Expect more unity in the itemization for Tanking and DPS items (sorry, Rogues).

There have been very recent discussions on the forums about the anticipated removal of current parry mechanics, and the impact of this change on tanking, but I'll reserve my commentary about that for a future post.

Quality of Life / Aesthetics

Q: For the official word, do we have plans to update more druid form models at some point in the future?

Ghostcrawler: I know for a fact that the current Travel Form and Aquatic Form are loathed by the artist who redid bear and cat. We do have plans to update additional forms at some point in the future.

New Aquatic and Travel Forms? Yummy.

I will post a follow-up to this, which will incorporate recent developer commentary from the last month. Hopefully this will help ground some of the players who are new to Druid Tanking or are currently leveling a feral druid with the intention of end-game tanking get a sense of where the class direction is currently heading.

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