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Dev Watercooler: Ghostcrawler talks critical hits (and misses)

The Dev Watercooler, Ghostcrawler's conversational community blog series, continues with a look at the theories behind critical hits. After a bit on the history of critical strikes in WoW, Ghostcrawler gets down to business with an awesome discussion about the homogenization of classes, the issue with healer critical hits, and the pros and cons of homogenizing critical hits across the board.

Dev Watercooler -- Critical Hits (And Misses)
'Dev Watercooler' is a blog series that provides an inside look into the thoughts and discussions happening within the World of Warcraft development team. In our first entry, Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostctrawler" Street laid down a few ground rules:

No promises.
Don't read too much between the lines.
No whining about the choice of topics we cover.


Critical History Lesson

In the original combat rules of World of Warcraft, melee classes could get 200% crits while casters could only get 150% crits. This was back when all the designers presumably played rogues instead of mages, which according to the forums is what we all play now (which makes our dungeon testing interesting, I gotta tell you.)

Over time, we added talents to allow various casters to get 200% crits as well. Warlocks "could" spend 5 points on the Ruin talent, for example, which you pretty much had to do to be a good warlock. As part of the Cataclysm talent tree evolutions we decided all DPS specs should be able to get 200% crits without investing talent points. There are still some inconsistencies though. Death knights can get 200% crits with both their melee and spell effects, while Assassination rogues get 200% crits with their physical attacks but only 150% crits with their poisons. Healers have always gotten 150% crits, both with their damage-dealing spells and with heals.

The overall design could be described as one that is simple to learn but complex to master. Or put another way, you know most of what you need to know if you're told that crits do more damage. How much extra damage they do is one of those nuances that more experienced players learn over time and one of the things that makes classes feel different.

Or does it?

You could argue that we're just keeping old rules that don't really benefit the game. Is it very interesting that rogue poisons or Enhancement Lightning Bolts don't have big crits? Does it make you feel different when you pick those classes or specs? Does it feel rewarding when you learn those subtle distinctions? I'd posit perhaps not. Homogenization is something we fight against all the time and one of the primary reasons that we don't make class A's ability work just like class B's ability.


Homogenization -- A Dirty Word

If I can be snarky for a moment, players tend to beat the "homogenization!" drum too emphatically when they are losing something that is overpowered, and like to mock it as "flavor!" when we refuse to give them a cool ability that another class has.

Too much homogenization is a bad thing, no question. But do weird crit rules really fall into that category? There is a difference between being complex (which adds depth) and being complicated (which might just add confusion). We'd rather spend our "complexity points" on things that are really meaningful differences. Pick Assassination because you like daggers or poisons or maybe Rupture, not because you like small crits.

There are balance issues to consider too. Assassination rogues are never going to value crit as much as other characters are as long as some of their crits are smaller. We ran into the same issue with the damage-over-time-based specs when their dots couldn't crit.


Healers Love Big Numbers Too

It can be an issue for healing as well. In Lich King, critical heals were virtually wasted because much of the time they were going to be overhealing. In Cataclysm, where healer mana matters more and even big heals can't trivially top someone off, crits are more valuable. But they aren't valuable enough. Getting 10% haste allows you to get a heal to a target 10% faster. Getting 10% crit allows you to heal a target 5% more. Is it any wonder that crit tends to get devalued for most healers? Resto shaman like it, but look at how many talents they have that make crits better for them. We're strongly considering just letting all heals crit for double, just like most attacks. We don't think this would have huge PvE consequences. Healers will heal for a little more, but even if they choose to start stacking crit, they're going to do that at the expense of Haste, Mastery or Spirit. It could have bigger PvP consequences. Most PvP healers don't have crit chances beyond say 10% or so, so they aren't going to crit often.

We've been considering whether healing is too strong in PvP anyway. You may have noticed that we made the tooltips for Mortal Strike and equivalent debuffs intentionally vague for 4.1. As I write this, those debuffs are still at 10% healing, but we're concerned that healing is too hard to counter and we might change that number. Changing it back to 50% would probably lead to the Mortal Strike debuff being mandatory for Arena comps again, but we never got much of a chance to see its effects at say 20%. A 20% Mortal Strike debuff could easily counter any excessive healing caused by 200% crits.


Changes Ahead?

Letting rogues and Enhancement shaman get 200% crits with non-physical damage would be a larger change, and not the kind of thing we would do mid-expansion. But it's definitely something we're considering for the future. That would only leave the damage spells cast by healers at the 150% crit range. We think we could make those full 200% crits as well. If we want to make sure the DPS specs still do a lot more damage, we have the knobs to do that. For example, we could buff passives such as Moonfury (the damage bonus for Balance druids) or Shadow Power (the damage bonus for Shadow priests) to make sure their spells still landed a lot harder than the healing specs did, even if the healers got big crits.

If we made all those changes, then any crit in the game would be at 200%. It would be a very simple rule, and I'd argue any loss of class distinction is more than made up for by the positive balance ramifications. As always with this blog series, this is just speculation. You're more likely to see 200% healing crits sooner, but even that isn't something we've fully embraced yet. It's just the kind of thing we discuss when hanging out at the bar... er, I mean watercooler.


Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer for World of Warcraft. He crits on a 19 or 20.


For me, these features get more and more fascinating each time. Homogenization is a dirty word sometimes, but for balance purposes it is an excellent way of thinking about things. Classes each get the tools needed to perform their role while maintaining flavor abilities and extra perks that make the class desirable. The key point to take away, really, is that critical hit rules aren't an anti-homogenization fight worth having because of potential confusion.

As usual, I am eagerly awaiting more watercooler time with Ghostcrawler.

WoW Patch 4.1 is on the PTR, and WoW Insider has all the latest news for you -- from previews of the revamped Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub to new valor point mechanics and new archaeology items.

Filed under: Blizzard, Cataclysm

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