In terms of design elements that have been problematic over the course of World of Warcraft's existence, the idea of hybrid classes and what, exactly, they should be able to do has always been one of them. When the game first debuted, two hybrids - priests and warriors - weren't even treated like hybrids. Priests were considered healers, with their two healing spects (holy and disc) while shadow was barely utilized, and warriors were not only nearly the only tanking class (druids and paladins could tank, but warriors were the unrelentingly favorite choice in classic WoW) and they were designed as a pure DPS class as well, not balanced as a hybrid, in their DPS roles.
Over the course of the years and years since classic (seven of them, to be exact) we've seen hybrid classes rise to ascendancy. The way hybrids were balanced for pure DPS changed to be much closer to pure DPS classes, and since all healers and tanks are hybrids there's been competition between each for both of these roles (considering that the two new classes added during WoW's life, death knights and monks, are both tanks and monks are also healers, competition has been necessary) making hybrids more attractive. However, it was really the addition of dual spec that made hybrids start to live up to the ideal of the hybrid class - with dual spec specialization, a druid can choose to have a tanking and healing, or tanking and ranged DPS, or healing and melee DPS specialization ready to be selected at the touch of a button.
However, it's never as easy as all that. Yes, a paladin can have a ret and protection spec, or protection and holy, or holy and ret ready to go. But he or she still needs to gear said spec. If you intend to heal for you raiding, tank for five mans and flex, and go ret for fun you'd actually not only need to hit a trainer from time to time to drop a spec, you'd also need three sets of gear ready to go. And it is this very limitation, so woven into the fabric of the game over the past few years that I myself have almost entirely forgotten about it, that is about to be bent further than it ever has been.
Make no mistake - Warlords of Draenor will change not only what stats we want on gear, but how we use that gear.
This means many things. One I'll illustrate using an example from my own experience.
I have two DPS specs right now, because some fights in Siege of Orgrimmar are single target fights (and thus, fury is better than arms for them) and others are AoE fights (and arms heavily outperforms fury on AoE) - as a result, when I am asked to tank/offtank or just decide to do so, I must engage in the following steps.
- Collect protection pieces (offspec gear) in raiding, waiting of course for our main tanks to have all they need for progression.
- Make sure my offspec pieces are all gemmed, enchanted, and properly reforged.
- Go to the trainer and choose one of my DPS specs to lose in order to pick up my protection spec.
In the discussion of all the changes to gear this has been the point I haven't seen get discussed nearly as much as it should be, because what it does isn't just a case of making it so the holy pally plate is also good for DK's and warriors and ret/prot pallies, or that the tanking leather is of use to moonkins and rogues - it means that every piece of gear you get is just that, gear. It's not only gear for one of your specs, and as a result, you can perform the roles you are specced for faster and easier.
Crithto mentions that, as an example, if you switch from healing to tanking you may not have the best possible rings, trinkets and other accessories, but that's less important for "I'm just doing this to fill in" situations. Yes, if you wish to be as good as possible at your roles, you'll need some specialized gear, and that's in my opinion good because it rewards good choices and allows progression minded players to display mastery of the gearing side-game - but it also means that on days when I feel like running some dungeons, I can just switch over to prot and do it without needing to have collected whole sets of variant gear for the purpose.
PvP gear will still exist as a separate gear path, although even PvP gear will switch by role/spec (so your holy pally can PvP in the same set as your ret pally) but otherwise, this is the end of things like tank and DPS and healing class sets, since class set bonuses will also switch with role/spec.
And this all leads us to the question asked at the beginning - just how hybrid should hybrids be? Is it good for the game if a druid could easily switch from healer to ranged DPS in the same gear?
No, seriously, that's the answer. Yes, it's good for the game.
All right, fine, I'll explain my answer. The first thing to keep in mind is, we're still limited to two choices of spec - the most hybrid any class can ever really get without a trip to the trainer is two roles at most. Since we're limited by that already, having our gear not be a hindrance to the performance of these roles simultaneously makes it far more convenient for people who want to do this kind of hybrid play without really blowing the doors off of the system. We can't switch in combat, we can't drop a spec away from a trainer, we'll still need to consider talent choices and glyphs - it makes the hybrid lifestyle easier without making it trivial.
Now, if you're worried that it makes pure DPS even more disadvantaged, I can argue with that, but it comes down to this - it does, slightly. It does because it removes an arbitrary mechanical limit on hybrids, but the same things that keep hybrids from swapping on the fly (can't switch in combat, can only switch between two) will mean that it's simply not going to be that big a change from modern raiding or dungeons. The limiter will be player choice - what roles did the hybrid player choose to spec into - and not whether or not they've been able to pick up offspec gear.
In the end, I think this is an astonishing move forward towards hybrids getting to play with their wider class toolkits, and I'm eager to see where it goes.