WoW Talents and the Illusion of Decision

The update to WoW’s talent system:

While leveling, you will get 1 talent point about every 2 levels (41 points total at level 85) […] As another significant change, you will not be able to put points into a different talent tree until you have dedicated 31 talent points to your primary specialization.

If you don’t follow Warcraft, the summary of change is that players receive about half the talents they used to for character customization. And they will be much more restricted in how they spend their points.

As an aside, we shouldn’t neglect to mention just how hacktackular the design of this system has become. A system design basic: If your design forces you to spend a minimum of X points in a system, you probably don’t want to spend any more. In fact, you probably didn’t want to spend the minimum. The rule is there for a reason, not your benefit. For the record, the corollary is also true: if a designer says you can spend a maximum of X points in a system, you probably want to do that too. From an elegance point of view, such rules are less than ideal. Years ago, I had engage a similarly ugly hack to fix a broken game: “the number of health points consisting of magic users can be no more than half of the total number of health points (rounded down) in each player’s total forces.” The rule is an admission that magic-users are too strong, and that every good player’s army should have an army composed of half of them. Yuck.

Let’s get back on topic. Maybe the system is a kludgey, but it could produce a good result for the player in theory. Hmmm, let’s think about that. To help us, let’s turn to an expert:

A game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.

Well, we’ve certainly reduced player choices, have we? Consider: the player is forced to spend 31 of his 36 points inside of a specialization. And each specialization has only about 36 possible choices. More than 85% of your choices are in one specialization, and inside that specialization you can only choose not to purchase about 15% of your options. In other words, you get to make about 5-points worth of decisions: what five points you don’t want to buy in your spec, and what 5 points you do want to buy in another spec. The number 36 (or soon, 39) is a distraction.

Let’s look at this problem visually:

On first glance, this seems reasonable. The player appears to have about twice the number of unselected options (grayed out talents) as he has selected options (highlighted talents). Unfortunately, while that would be true in the old system, the player had nowhere near that many choices to make. He had 5.

Blizzard is relearning a lesson of class-based RPGs versus skill-based RPGs. The fact is, class-based system tend to create more player choice and freedom. That seems counterintuitive, but bear with me. When you create a system of character customization that is point and skill-based, the players will build a series of “classes” for you. And player class-building in a live environment will probably create fewer optimal character options than the game would have had if the game design included prebuilt classes. It is almost certainly to create fewer well-balanced options. For an example from inside World of Warcraft, take a look at site like and see this behavior in action. Data derived from active playerbase indicates that players use character builds that are very widely shared. Click through the various classes, and you’ll find that one talent build rules each specialization on wowpopular. That was true even before the recent talent change. Players find the most optimal builds the game design allows, and that build gets replicated out. This behavior could be witnessed back with old pen and paper point-based RPGs such as Champions. It happens in m:tg deck building. And of course it’s even easier in an online game such as an MMO.

So, what to do then? Well, if you’re going to evolve subclasses in your game (the Protection Warrior, the Fire Mage, etc.) as WoW has acknowledged, then you should treat them as subclasses worth expressing fully, rather than forcing the players to construct them. That means that when a player reaches level 10, don’t bother to expose a talent tree that contains only the illusion of decision. Because after the “specialization choice” is made , that’s all the player is left with. I’d rather see a simpler option: Pick a subclass. Just choose: do you want to be a Balance, Restoration, or Feral Druid? End of line.  Then the designer can craft the abilities and benefits to flow in a logical manner. In other words, get rid of talents. I don’t think that Blizzard’s designers have gone far enough, leaving alive the vestiges of a system that no longer serves any function. Let the specialization choice perform the role it already does, but with less annoyance to the player and less balance headache for the designer.

The only justification I can see with the current system is that it hands out rewards that are more frequent but much less meaningful. You tell me: Is that enough reason for talents to exist?


  • “If your design forces you to spend a minimum of X points in a system, you probably don’t want to spend any more. In fact, you probably didn’t want to spend the minimum. The rule is there for a reason, not your benefit. For the record, the corollary is also true: if a designer says you can spend a maximum of X points in a system, you probably want to do that too. From an elegance point of view, such rules are less than ideal.”

    I never thought about this until you just mentioned it. It is absolutely true in so many games. Ranks 1-4 are totally lame but I HAVE to spend the points to unlock the thing I actually want. I’m much rather spend half the points for no abilities and go straight to the upper tier thing I actually want. Or better yet, try and make all the abilities cool in some way so I can get whatever I want and not feel like I am wasting points because some system guy said so.

  • Funny, I was just thinking about this the other day, when I was staring at the screen picking talent points for my Belf Paladin.

    Illusion of choice? Yeah.

    Unnecessary? Not at all.

    It gives players a sense of accomplishment for each level that grants a talent point. Incremental rewards are essential to keep player interest in a game like this.

    Oh, and since WoW has two very different gameplay aspects (PvP and content play), each of the specs can be configured for either playstyle through talent choices, effectively making six ideal builds per class rather than just three.

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