Is Alternate Advancement Just An Illusion?

I’ve always considered the point of alternative advancement (Talents in WoW, AAs in EQ/EQ2, Feats in AoC, Masteries in WAR etc) to be to customise your avatar and let you have a more personalised roleplaying experienced. However, I’m starting to question if this sense of choice and personalisation is really just a big illusion.

Check out the forums of fan sites of any game that offers alternative advancement and you will see a slew of posts about strongly “recommended” builds. I don’t know how it happens or who does it, but at some point during a game’s release “other” people quickly find the optimum, and recommended, build for any situation and then that becomes the bible for everyone else. The result is that the entire decision process is removed from the player and we simply follow the molds laid out in front of us in order to achieve the best results.

My worst experience with this sort of thing was with my Berserker in Everquest 2. I had two completely seperate AA windows, each containing about four or five trees and a grand total of about 120 points to spend. Sounds great except for the fact that there was only one way to spec my character without utterly gimping myself. Although I tried to buck the trend – and God knows I spent hours pouring over DPS and mitigation calculations – I eventually had to follow suit and pick the same AAs as every other Berserker. To those that are familiar with EQ2, it was commonly called the Buckler Spec and to those of you who aren’t, it essentially meant I had to use 1h weapon and wield a tiny, silly little buckler shield instead of the gigantic 2h axe I so desired.

My quest to start a new character in World of Warcraft reignited these dormant thoughts within me when I was checking out the hunter forum. See, I really like the idea of playing a melee hunter but, apparently, that would make me a complete laughing stock. No, instead I have a single choice depending on my situation: Marksmanship for PvP, Beast Mastery for raiding and Survival for PvE.

I actually quite like the Talent system in WoW and it’s a better form of alternate advancement than most games, however I feel that again I’m forced to follow predefined patterns and micro-managing only a handful of “spare” points that probably have very little impact on my gameplay at all. Perhaps the classes would be better off just having easily selectable changeable modes of play (i.e. PvP/PvE/Raiding stances or similar) which immediately imbued the player with those appropriate abilities.

I guess what I’m saying is that if alternative advancement is either only offering “mandatory” selections or situational builds, then I don’t think we’re actually getting a whole lot of customisation (or purpose) out of them. If every Hunter in PvP is using a Marksmanship build, then where’s the uniqueness or variety? It makes me feel that it’s all just an illusion to keep us more engaged with number crunching or grinding.

What do you think? Has the whole meaning behind alternate advancement been lost or is it just a case of bad balance and the player’s desire to “ruleplay” instead of roleplay?

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39 Comments

  1. the_nins says:

    I think that optimizing gameplay is unfortunately mutually exclusive from optimizing roleplay.

    When it comes to raiding, it always seems there’s the optimal min/max build and shying away from that will result in suboptimal dps (or heals, or aggro generation). I played both WoW and EQ2 and I have to agree, EQ2 builds were basically set in stone and everyone had the same one. WoW, on the other hand, offers a lot more flexibility, though I mainly think that’s because there are several styles of gameplay (pvp, pve, raiding, heals/tanking vs dps). But that’s just it, it’s gameplay which to me feels almost completely separate from roleplay. I don’t know if that’s because I perceive it that way, or it’s just the way the games worlds are designed. Maybe a little of both.

    I think if we want to have builds that allow us to customize our roleplay, they are going to have to be things that don’t affect gameplay. For instance, in EQ2 they introduced appearance slots that allowed you to wear whatever you want. Maybe with WoW’s new Archeology Profession, Path of the Titans and the Guild Talent trees, we might see more customization in the roleplay aspect of things.

    • Gordon says:

      “I think that optimizing gameplay is unfortunately mutually exclusive from optimizing roleplay.”

      I think that sentence pretty much perfectly sums everything up! :) It’s a shame though because I like roleplaying and I want to “feel” my character yet I’m also quite competitive. For instance, in EQ2 I roleplayed an “old man Bruiser” who fought with only his fists. It was jolly good fun and I could still be reasonably strong in a group. Of course, once fist attacks got nerfed, my ability to play my role became a lot harder.

      • SsandmanN says:

        Unfortunately it isn’t possible to incorporate all the variations of player ideas of a character into classes/specs. Hence there will always be a problem when you want to roleplay something that does’t match the spec stereotype.

        Apart from that, mandatory “talents” are obviously flowed design, the devs failing at making them equally viable.

        On the other hand, specs being viable for different situations, as in PvE/PvP/grinding specs – it seems to me that is just the type of customisation that is desired.
        Although maybe not the only customisation that could be desired :)

  2. xXJayeDuBXx says:

    The buckler spec, I tried to not spec that way as well cause I really wanted to use a 2hander, but I know a little of what you speak of.

    In WoW there are some talents that are not great, but for the most part I gave up trying to follow ‘the spec’, and would read up on different specs to actually see what the talents did more or less. There are some talents that are more geared towards PvP, something to keep in mind when taking talents.

  3. moxie says:

    I think if you want to be a melee hunter, then be a melee hunter. I know that one melee hunter (who used to be on my current server) has been written up in various WoW fansites, just because he had the guts to do something different with his character.

    Some folks can do amazing things with unusual specs, just as some other folks can suck even while using the “recommended” specs. Know what you like and what your playstyle is, be the best you can be at it, and tell the mockers to go suck an egg.

  4. JC says:

    Ever tried Arcanum? ;-) Sure, it’s only single player, and if you don’t choose to focus on magic or technology to the exclusion of the other you kinda gimp yourself, but within the magic focus or the tech focus there are so many different builds it’s pretty amazing. And each offers different RP experiences as well — having to be in the back of the train or the train not allowing you to use it at all if you’re too powerful a mage, stuff like that. Magic is easier in the lower levels than tech so I admit I went that route, but later on the technologists could be shockingly powerful (and even a pet class if you spec’d for it with an AMAZING mechanical spider.

    So far as AA’s in EQ2 go, well yah… unless a class has rather unspectacular AA’s there’s generally that “1 build” to go for. Sometimes there might be a little variation in it, there will still be the “non-negotiable base parts.” Kinda sad, but that’s what happens when you make AA’s into game-changing even class-defining abilities, rather than simply fluff.

    • Gordon says:

      I think EQ2 had some big issues with AA balance. Firstly, locking people into weapon selections was just silly and only helped turn everyone into a template. With Berserkers it was especially silly cause everyone ended up using the same specs and weapons!

  5. Andrew says:

    In WoW, unless you’re actually in a super hardcore competitive environment then just spec whichever way makes you feel good. The game is forgiving enough with its solo and small group content that it’s difficult to gimp yourself to the point of uselessness. You may not top the charts every time…. but are you really playing to top them?

  6. Andrew says:

    @JC:

    ARCANUM!

    I lost my copy and I badly miss that game. It was so amazing and I’ve wanted to replay it forever now. But it’s rare. I always wanted to try an ogre idiot savant character….

    • JC says:

      I did that once. Strong as all getout — I think I started with a 20 STR (and double melee damage as a result) but the dialog options were much more limited, and for some reason that killed the experience for me. Tried the build a couple of times, but just couldn’t bring myself to go past level 8-ish.

  7. Longasc says:

    You are right that soon people find specs that just work better than others.
    It is bad if they are very obvious and if they are clearly superior to alternatives.

    But even if you have three main specs for different environments, there is always room for variation.
    I.e. I used a raid spec for PvP, and thus had Shadowfury and Aftermath for Daze. It was a pvp-raid hybrid and I had to duel some other Warlocks AND outdps them in our raids till they suddenly were commenting on the spec and how it could be improved. People are slow to accept new things.
    I lost a wee bit damage maybe, but I think I made that up in some fights, I could stun Murlocs in Serpentshrine and all that.
    There was also room for variation in various Affliction and Demo specs. But people often played “by the book”.

    Case in point: Guild Wars. Random PUG: “Ping your spec” – the more you deviate from the standard, the more likely you are to be called a noob and or kicked. Even if the spec is good. It is like gear. nobody can evaluate the skill of a stranger, but they can see the gear and they know at least one build that works. And this one you are expected to play, of course. :P

    One more thing regarding Hunters: They dual wield for a reason.
    The blade is there to be rammed into the belly, the dagger to cut their throat so that they do not cry. It is one of the few manly things that Hunters can do, actually. :> ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seppuku )

    • Gordon says:

      Ugh, yeah, there’s nothing more annoying in WoW than being asked “what spec are you” before you join a group. The most stupid thing of all was when I was getting asked that on my Warrior and Priest when I was level 20! Like a whole 10 talent points are going to make a difference…

      Oh and love your reference to seppuku lol :D

  8. Fuyuko says:

    I know what you mean. It seems like some games are full of min-maxers, which, while fine for them, tends to impact gameplay for those of us who want to follow a playstyle different from that.

    I, for one, played shadow when it was a laughing stock, and smite through part of TBC, and people wouldn’t group with me. No matter that I could out DPS every one of them in the TBC heroics – it was not one of the cookie cutter builds and so I was the laughing stock as well.

    What’s sad is there isn’t much we can do about it. :( If we want to progress, we usually have to conform.

  9. Sven says:

    I feel your frustration. In most games I generally avoid the forums, build the character I want, and enjoy playing him. But I know that’s just an illusion. There is an optimal build out there, and if I group enough times or join a guild I’m going to be expected to use it.

    I think the problem lies in the fact that there’s really only one goal in most mmo’s; kill the monster. Almost all XP revolves around that. Since there is only one destination it makes sense that people are going to find the quickest path to it. The more ability you give people to dig into the “guts” of a system the more they will cherry pick the best to get the job done. I just don’t think that’s avoidable.

    Some games seperate out a second “goal” of PvP in which case people will figure out the best means to do that as well. Champions seperates out the traditional mmo roles as a different “goals” and let’s you build a character for each – swapping your defensive/offensive build almost on the fly.

    I think there in lies the answer, don’t give people different routes to the same destination but give them different destinations to reach.

  10. Jim says:

    I speced a melee hunter in WoW and I LOVED it. I got crap all the time but I kicked ass in pvp. No one expected me to whip out my axes when they got in melee range. I think it was a good build and was very fun for soloing. I did have a hard time getting drops in instances because I was not a melee class.

    But a melee hunter is fun. A lot of fun.

  11. whatsmymain says:

    I do see where you are going but I think there is a little bit of a difference in what you are talking about. A hunter is designed to be a ranged class and every tree supports that aspect of the class. All 3 trees are pretty much viable for all aspects of the game at this point though some trees do exceed in some regards to others.

    But forcing a hunter into melee is just weakening it. Sure you can still do it. You can do anything in the game which is the beauty of MMO’s. That isn’t to say you aren’t going to gimp yourself in the process. The closest thing that WoW has to a melee pet class is an unholy DK. Obviously if you want to start at level 1… that just isn’t going to work for you.

    Speaking of Guild Wars… my first character was a Ranger/Warrior. I used to attack from range and then charge into melee switching to sword and shield. It did have some mild use in throwing people off because they weren’t expecting it but ultimately the combination was utter garbage.

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, I suppose it depends on how you look at it. Of course, I’d argue that because the hunter *can* use melee weapon and does have a couple of melee abilities, then it’s certainly a possibility for a play style. Whether Blizzard want to encourage that or not is another option. Still, I love variety and bucking the trend so it appeals to me :)

  12. Sounds like the bigger problem here is that other people won’t accept non-standard builds, rather than the games not making AAs useful outside of the narrowly-defined “flavor of the month”. Unless you’re with a high-end competitive raiding guild where you need to squeeze out every possible advantage for your character, you can do pretty much whatever you want. When I played a Feral in TBC I took Improved Mark instead of the standard Furor because our guild didn’t always have a Resto Druid, and that bonus to the buff helped everyone in a raid. (Now Improved Mark gives a bonus to attributes, so it’s not quite so strange to take it.)

    In EQ2, my necromancer focused on the Animist line, which gave a boost to my heal spells. I wasn’t a main healer by a long shot, but one time in a higher level instance I was able to do just enough healing after the healer went OOM after a bad pull to save the party. I wasn’t pouring out max DPS, but the group didn’t mind that time.

    Also keep in mind that DPS calculations are based on “ideal” situations. I did a lot of research on Feral Druids in TBC and saw first-hand that while my theoretical max DPS was X, having to move around and do things like throw out combat rezes when a healer got smacked reduced that theoretical max a lot. Taking things like Nurturing Instinct didn’t help my DPS, but it did help the group quite a bit in the right situations.

    So, i’ll echo the advice others have put here: go ahead and do a melee hunter! It’s just going to be you for the first few levels, anyway, so you can build up. Maybe people won’t fall over themselves to invite you to groups (unless a patch makes your setup the flavor of the month), but you’ll have fun.

    After all, isn’t fun what these games are supposed to be about?

    • Gordon says:

      You’re absolutely right :) I’m not gonna be out raiding tomorrow with a hunter so I should enjoy it and stop worrying :)

      Regarding EQ2, ironically I found that very few people asked about AA builds (expect those super hardcore guilds that enforce certain builds) unlike in WoW where everyone constantly asks your build before inviting you into a group.

      The big problem with EQ2 was that AAs were just very badly balanced. The Berserker Buckler Spec is a perfect example of this and really was the *only* viable spec. Eventually – after a LONG time – SOE recognised this and have now changed it completely, removing the buckler component and rebalancing it, thank god. I always felt that there was something wrong with a class that only had one viable build out of 120 points.

  13. Dblade says:

    Talent trees and things are not designed as alternate advancement, depending on the setup-they are just secondary levelling. Unless you get them with no extra effort as you level up, that is. If you need to sock away a portion of current exp to advance it, or if you level after you reach cap for merit points to buy them, it’s just more levelling.

    Usually the only time you can be a special snowflake is rolling an alt or being pure solo. Few games just make paths balanced enough to be viable, or even close to viable-it’s either good, or “What the hell were the devs thinking?”

    • Gordon says:

      Well, WoW is different to EQ2 because you get 1 talent point per level without fail. In EQ2, you had to actively achieve them through quests, discoveries, and at level 80, more exp grinding. I quite like the system but it does mean you end up having a secondary form of leveling rather than just a pure way to customise or distinguish your character from others.

  14. Salivanth says:

    I have to respectfully disagree, in WoW, with the totality of your argument. In WoW I find that there are several decisions to be made in regards to build if you want to be an X role, Y class. Generally there ends up being about 30-50 core talents that you have to pick (but you’d pick them anyway if you were trying to make your own build unless you were intentionally underpowering yourself) but close to half of the points are your own decision.

    Albeit, I’ve never played in a hardcore raiding guild, but I played a Fire Mage in Karazhan when everyone said that Frost was better, and I was generally 2nd-3rd in damage (about the same as I was in gear quality) out of the 6-7 DPS.

    • Gareth says:

      I’d disagree again ;)

      I played a tank (protection warrior) and a dps class (shadow priest) and for the tank class I had to spec 60 or so of my points into certain talents or I’d be pretty useless (ok the content is WotLK supports uselessness, but that’s beside the point).

      The shadow priest was kind of even worse, being that his only point was to do dps and the only secondary worry was mana, the fact that there was too much mana regen coupled with fights being too easy (and therefore ending fast) meant that I could ignore everything but dps. So if you raid there is just one build there that does the maximum dps, every decision away from that path drops your dps down to a core of about 55 points that must be spent or you are not viable (you’ll be struggling to keep your dps above the tank). I definitely experienced this.

      In EQ2 its a mixed bag, I like the idea that AA points are only obtainable via quests or something other then grinding, to me that was the major difference. However now that you can grind and assign some XP to AA removes that.

      On the talent trees themselves, some classes seem to really not need any of them at all, maybe its my newness to the game or maybe I want something different out of the class. One example is a warden, its really hard to increase their ranged spell dps (I know they are healers) since the AA pushes you down the melee route.

      Overall what started as a good idea in EQ2 is starting to become a problem I believe, too many talents now making it almost impossible to design a decent well thought out advancement path. I think the WoW devs know this too hence are not expanding their trees next expansion.

      EQ2 really could do with more multiple point talents to soak up the 200-240 points we’ll be getting since it starts to look just plain confusing wading through 240 choices :P

      Overall I think both games need their developers to step back and rethink the whole AA point line, making it into something that you need but gets to several different equally useful destinations (melee warden, spell warden, more direct healing warden, more dot healing warden etc).

      Right now its tailor made for min maxers, if you want to raid seriously in WoW as a hunter you need Survival or whatever the flavour of the month is.

  15. Tobold says:

    I think the problem is related to the fact that at least the dps classes are judged by a single number, the dps shown at the end of the instance / raid on the damage meter. 3k dps? You’re fine. 1k dps? You’re a moron and a slacker, and we won’t play with you no more.

    So once you reduced the whole spectrum of human interaction to a single number, the goal of every aspect of the game becomes to increase that number. Any piece of gear, any talent, is simply judged on whether it moves your dps up or down. Add a bit of math and theorycrafting, and there is only one possible talent build left.

    • Gareth says:

      Your post and Frank the tanks post makes me wonder if the ultimate solution here is to do away with numbers completely like the original Everquest 1.

      That’s ironically one thing I think WoW has gotten wrong with their gear changes, in the new expansion they are getting rid of a load of stats to simplify gear choices since as they said “people couldn’t work out what was better” and would often go on what some sites spreadsheet would recommend.

      I’d argue that even a spreadsheet couldn’t work it out, if anything that for me is success, since people have to gear and find out for themselves and can be free to gear more freely inside that ambiguity, but instead they made the game easier to min-max.

      Bad move.

    • Gordon says:

      Tanks are harder to judge by numbers but healers get it just as much too. It’s one of the reasons I got really put off raiding – I hated that after every fight someone who publish the DPS and Healing charts in guild chat. Suddenly the whole purpose of individuals on the raid became trying to be #1 and not actually enjoying the game or playing their character.

      • Gareth says:

        That’s something I didn’t like, I had experiences being pretty low on the healing, but changing my play style then just for the meter jepordised the raid since I wasn’t playing to the encounter.

        Maybe the real problem here isn’t the meter, but I think the real problem is instead encounters where its easy and predictable to play them. A prime case are the heavily scripted WoW ones which at times are more cheorgraphed dances then active combat (Heigan is always called the dance, actually good fun too), or a simple tank and spank fight, in these situations everyone can get maximum DPS since there is nothing unpredictable to get in the way once you know the encounter.

        That’s one reason why I always prefer those fights where you have to improvise all the time, much more fun to play, and they are so ambigious on performance that someone who tops the meters is probably just someone who was in the right place at the right time with a bit of luck.

        A case of that sort of fight is in the WoW instance Magisters Terrace, it was a end level 5 man dungeon released right at the end of the Burning crusade expansion, hard and really well designed. The second to last fight was against the Priestess and 4 randomly chosen minions (warrior, rogue, mage etc). There was no real aggro table, is was just a question of improvising and getting through and was damn good fun, the best way to sum it up was to play it like PVP.

        I guess those encounters are very hard to design and balance though.

  16. Well, if you armory my character (Hazardus, Firetree US) I do use quite a rare build (Shockadin) I do think, however, cookie cutter specs are ruining the fun of customizing your character. It seems however that Blizzard is attempting to change that in the upcoming Cataclysm with their improvements to the talent system.

  17. Ferrel says:

    The way that AAs work at this time is basically an illusion yes. The major issue is that they add so much power that someone will always find an optimal way. My biggest complaint with WoW’s talent trees (and this is not based on current data) is that you had fluff abilities that you just “had” to take to get to something you want. The trees were large for the sake of being large.

    I think it comes down to the fact that too many options end up being less options. If we had far fewer talents but all were good it would lead to people making harder decisions. One would always be “best” but if the difference between 1H/Buckler and 2H Axe was only 2% DPS you’d be less inclined to care.

  18. Twan says:

    “….build for any situation and then that becomes the bible for everyone else. The result is that the entire decision process is removed from the player and we simply follow the molds laid out in front of us in order to achieve the best results.”

    What you just described is what the theorycrafting base of EJ has given us.

  19. My question is: what should AA be for? To me, it should be a way to customize a character. “I like using ability X or role Y, so I’m going to pick talents that enhance that.” For example, each talent tree for a Druid was a different role, so you could pick what you wanted to do. I liked the flexibility of the Druid, so I took Feral so I could both DPS and tank. Eventually I got tired of they messing around with the Feral spec, so I just went Balance so I could blast things from a distance.

    I think Tobold has one key to this puzzle: when you reduce players down to a single number, then people focus on that single number. Enhancing DPS to the exclusion of everything else is most important, even if you didn’t like that setup or if the group as a whole would be better off with a different choice. It got to the point that a lot of Feral Druids simply didn’t want to combat rez someone because it would reduce their DPS. I understood that the group would be better off with the person back in action, so I was often the first person to do it. (Plus I argued I should get all their post-rez DPS added to my count. ;)

    I’m not sure I agree with Twan that this is all the fault of Elitist Jerks. People often want to be told what to do so that they don’t “screw things up”. Someone else going through all the hard work to figure out what’s best means that others can just profit. The problem is that a lot of the theorycrafters are working on the assumption that the high-end raiding guilds are the target audience. Joe 5-man doesn’t need to sqeeze out that last 5% of DPS, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to find “the best” and go with it. And then judging other people based on what is “the best” when he recruits 4 others to run a heroic. Who wants to go in with a reduced chance to succeed, after all?

    I think part of the culprit here is the complexity of the stats and derived stats. I saw this a bit with the Feral Druid in TBC, and it seems to have just gotten more complex for more classes. So, a simplification is needed, but not sure it’ll be sufficient to break existing habits.

    • Gordon says:

      MMOs are certainly more heavily influenced by being the best than by playing a role. It’s human nature, we’re competitive. I think the only way for developer to combat this is to try and create equality. I don’t think people would be so fussed about the “best” spec if there was only a small difference between them all.

      My EQ2 was the most extreme example I’ve encountered. It really was a case of one spec or nothing else and it was a damn shame.

  20. Anakh says:

    I think the problem with AAs in EQ2 is that there are a lot of trees that just aren”t that good. I think many people wouldn’t feel locked in to a single spec if they felt they had more viable options, but when you look at 5 AA lines and your class only has one or two of them that would be good at all, you’re inside the box from that point on. If they went back and majorly buffed or changed the ones no one took, and made them all more equal choices, you’d probably see better results.

    • Gareth says:

      I definitely see that with my characters, I feel excitement when I get a new AA point on my guardian as there are so many things I want to spend it on. At the other end of the spectrum is my Warden, I’ve got 9 unspent I think, just not inspired by any of them really, especially since I don’t want to melee, maybe I need to roll another class.

    • Gordon says:

      I agree. It’s all about choice. I remember the Guardian having a huge variety of interesting and useful abilities yet the Berserker was pretty limited. In fact, a lot of players were very unhappy about it and switch class to Guardian instead.

      It just goes to show how hard it is to balance things :)

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