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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