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Dev Watercooler: Ghostcrawler discusses the number of player abilities

In his continuing conversational blog series Dev Watercooler, Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street (lead systems designer) muses about the number of abilities players have, what the sweet spot is in terms of quantity, the need for all classes to have a viable AoE rotation, and the difference between rotational abilities and situational abilities. From a game design perspective, this might be the coolest Dev Watercooler yet.

Read this full Dev Watercooler after the break, or check out the other Dev Watercoolers with Ghostcrawler:

Dev Watercooler -- Number of Abilities
'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.


How Big Is Your Spellbook?

How many abilities should a max-level class have? This is something I ponder at least once a day and is a regular topic in nearly all of our class design meetings. Even if you pick a magic number, how many of those should be core rotational abilities versus abilities that are used rarely?

Each class has a lot of spells and abilities -- the hunter has over 60, including the various forms of tracking. Despite our pruning abilities for many classes, there are still probably too many overall. In vanilla, most classes had one ability they used much of the time for damage or healing. Other abilities were situational or, to be honest, not used at all. In more recent expansions, we've tried to develop actual rotations for all 30 talent trees so that you're hitting more than one button most of the time.

When we talk about class "rotations" we're just using that term as shorthand for the abilities you tend to use often, as opposed to situational abilities. In this context "rotations" aren't limited just to classes who cycle through buttons A, B, and C in that order. It just means "stuff you use a lot."

Kidney Shot is a situational ability. You wouldn't want to use it every time it was off cooldown. Envenom is a rotational ability. You might not want to use it the moment it's off cooldown, depending on what else is going on, but you'll still get around to it pretty quickly. Cold Blood straddles the fence. It's rotational in that your DPS will drop if you ignore it, but you can't spam it because it has a cooldown. All three buttons require space on your action bar. You might scoot Kidney Shot off to the side if you're a raiding rogue, but it probably commands a prominent hotkey if you PvP a lot.

What's the Magic Number?

There isn't a magic number for how many rotational abilities a class needs, but we find that about four is the sweet spot. (Warning: four is not a magic number. Please don't "helpfully" point out classes with more than four abilities as candidates for immediate design overhauls.) Elemental shaman, for example, get most of their damage from Lightning Bolt, Lava Burst, Flame Shock, and Earth Shock.

Many more abilities than four and it's hard for us to carve off niches for them. Fewer than that, and the characters can become boring to play. We've tried to make it clearer about which are your rotational abilities (e.g. Overpower is for Arms warriors, not generally for Fury or Protection warriors), and we'll try to get even better about this in the future.

We generally think of rotations as mechanics for DPS classes, but they apply to tanks as well and to a lesser extent, healers. Protection warriors use Shield Slam, Revenge, Devastate, and Heroic Strike as their single-target threat abilities. They also use Demoralizing Shout, Thunder Clap, and Shield Block, pretty much on cooldown. Given the number of situational abilities warriors also have, and that they prioritize different abilities when attacking multiple targets, you can argue that Prot warriors have too many abilities. To my mind, Demoralizing Shout is the least interesting one and the first candidate to cut. (We would have to cut the equivalent debuffs from all sources in order to prevent this from just being a warrior nerf of course.) We could also have Devastate completely replace Sunder Armor (i.e. Sunder Armor vanishes from your Spell Book) so there is no confusion about whether Sunder should ever be used again. That would help to get a few buttons off the bar.

Healers have less of a rotation, since much of what they are doing is always highly situational. However, Holy paladins do have builders and finishers, and other healers want to get their HoTs up before switching to cast-time heals, etc. All healers still have a group of core spells though. For a Holy priest healing a single target, these are Heal, Flash Heal, Greater Heal, Renew, and Holy Word: Serenity. If we gave healers a new healing spell, it would need to distinguish itself from those spells in some meaningful way, else it or one of the existing spells risks getting crowded out. Flash Heal is often the heal that risks getting crowded out most often, since so many of the healer talents give them more situational-ish emergency buttons, such as Penance and Power Word: Shield for priests.

It's Complicated

I've stuck with long-ish single target rotations -- the kind you'd use against a dungeon or raid boss -- for the most part, but of course it isn't always that simple. As you're leveling, you're killing things very quickly, so applying long DoTs isn't always worth the effort. A Feral druid could stealth behind every quest mob and open with Shred (or even Ravage), but for the most part it's easier just to Mangle targets down and spend combo points on Savage Roar or possibly Ferocious Bite, since the target won't live long enough for Rip to really do its job. These "quick kill" rotations can also come into group play where you're dealing with adds that can't be AE'd down for whatever reason (such as the risk of breaking CC). A Shadow priest might use Mind Spike in these scenarios rather than their full dot and Mind Flay rotation.

On the topic of AE, some specs have some fairly interesting AE rotations, such as Fire mages (Flame Orb, Flamestrike, Combustion, Living Bomb) and Survival hunters (Serpent Spread, Explosive Trap and Multi-Shot). Other specs have really simple rotations, such as channeling a targeted spell over and over. Boring. Going forward, we're going to make more of an effort to make sure everyone has a reasonable AE rotation that at least involves more than one button. Part of the reason we don't want groups just AE'ing down everything in dungeons that they don't yet overgear is because we think the gameplay is less compelling. Adding a little more depth than just channeling Blizzard would encourage us to add more situations where AE is the right thing to do.

The Human Factor

Rotations are very different in PvP as well, where uninterrupted time to sit there and do max DPS is in very short supply. On the other hand, all of those situational abilities (crowd control, dispels, cooldowns etc.) are at a premium in PvP and very often have an even bigger effect on the outcome of a fight than the core abilities do. It is tempting, and to be fair sometimes appropriate, to solve class balance problems by handing out new abilities to make a particular class or talent spec more attractive to a team or at least more viable overall.

We can do this sometimes by tweaking existing abilities, but there is also a risk of "kitchen sinking" an ability. If a button does too many things, then you're sometimes asked to say use an offensive ability for defensive utility or apply a debuff you don't really want to mess with in order to get an ancillary benefit. We can cut down on potential confusion by giving similar or even identical abilities to multiple classes (now you only need to learn the name, icon and spell effect of one ability instead of a half-dozen), but too much of that risks class homogenization as well.

Because there are so many different scenarios (PvP, AE, quick kill, and long kill), classes end up with a lot of different rotational and situational abilities that you all are asked to manage and master. Your action bars fill up. Now add in potions and other consumables, mounts, trinkets, professions, and a potential host of macros, and your action bars get very full. Designers also feel a lot of pressure to fix neglected abilities rather than cutting them, even though pruning is often the wiser (but unpopular!) solution. An additional complication is that players expect (and rightfully so!) to gain a new ability or two whenever we increase the level cap. Very powerful situational abilities can serve this role, such as Ring of Frost, but players often react more positively when they gain a new rotational ability that changes up their second-to-second play style, like say Colossus Smash or Unleash Elements.

Too Many to Handle?

So when do we cross over from having "enough" cool abilities to "too many" cool abilities? The depth that comes from lots and lots of content can feel cool to a veteran player, but even for them, the intended role and nuance of every ability can become blurred. For the new or returning player, it just becomes incomprehensible.

A warrior who took some time off after Lich King and then came back to Cataclysm recently would have to relearn her rotation. Raging Blow? What's that about? Yeah, it might be more interesting than just spamming Bloodthirst, Heroic Strike, and Whirlwind (even on single targets) like Fury warriors did in Icecrown Citadel, but it's also just one more thing to learn. Even if the new rotation itself isn't all that complicated, the fact that the design changed over time makes it feel more confusing than it really is at any one moment in time.

Also remember, that to be the best that you can be, you need to understand the abilities of every class, not just your own. Yikes. We designers have to be vigilant to keep complexity at a manageable level, not just for veterans who are active on the forums, but for returning players who want to see what changes Cataclysm brought to the game.

Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer for World of Warcraft. He prefers Greek mythology over Roman. Cooler names.


Action bar space has been an issue with WoW for a long time, even since the very beginning, which explains the action bar addon craze that creates so many dynamic button layouts for players. Keybinding and macroing are valid answers to filling up your action bars with abilities, but some people just don't follow that playstyle.

Ghostcrawler's remarks about having some abilities replace others completely, like Devastate replacing Sunder Armor, make sense because Devastate was a product of the development mindset of "deep talents replace core abilities." If that's the model Ghostcrawler and pals want to move away from, abilities have to have added functionality deep in the talent trees versus replacing core attacks.

Finally, I'm glad that Ghostcrawler came out and said that abilities that just don't command any kind of fun factor or feel awesome are fluff and could potentially be removed. I like the concept of Demoralizing Shout, because as an adds tank in raids, I like it as a mitigation cooldown. But again, too many effects from one ability hits the "kitchen sink" problem that Ghostcrawler describes. Personally, I think WoW could lose an ability or two from each class, but so far, Blizzard has been pretty good about adding new abilities.

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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