Friday, September 4, 2015

WoW Analysis: On Survival Going Melee

The upcoming Legion expansion looks quite promising and while I've made a lot of statements elsewhere regarding it, I have yet to write any articles specifically discussing Legion. There are numerous reasons for this, such as my desire to create a chronological series about my personal experiences from the Burning Crusade up to present day and that I am waiting for additional information to be revealed at the upcoming Blizzcon and later on before doing further analysis. While I'll give more detailed impressions of some aspects of the reveal and subsequent reveals later on if they become relevant (such as when I review my suggestions and compare them to patches 6.2, 6.2.2, and what Legion might bring), one thing I've been meaning to discuss is the upcoming changes for Hunter. Specifically, this article will discuss the announcement of Survival becoming a melee specialization, an unprecedented sort of change which will supposedly be one of many class redesigns planned for Legion.

A (Very Brief) History of Survival Specialization and Hunters

Survival being a melee spec isn't a completely new concept. Back in Vanilla WoW, Survival had a talent tree that heavily focused on melee-related gameplay, which apparently didn't see much use since most statements regarding Hunters and DPS generally involved ranged gameplay (AFK autoshooting, Aimed Shot weaving, etc). In the Burning Crusade, melee-related talent design for Survival was gradually dialed back, though there were some quirky talents such as Counterattack. By the Wrath of the Lich King, all three Hunter specs focused on dealing ranged damage, with the following expansions emphasizing it further with the eventual removal of the deadzone and Hunter melee abilities and weapon usage in Mists of Pandaria.

With all of that said, I personally am not too receptive of this idea for several reasons, each of which I will review in detail below:

1. It's an unnecessary, possibly damaging, change

Aside from the simplistic reasoning that melee Survival Hunter has been explored before, this change comes off as a departure from an archetype of ranged weapon-users that, so far, has been rather unique to World of Warcraft, if only to a single class.

For example, Survival's current identity, or at least how I interpret it, is that it has an emphasis on trap usage based on ancient mechanics such as Trap Mastery and elemental damage, especially damage over time abilities. While this makes Survival Hunter a little similar to something like an Affliction Warlock of Shadow Priest, which are casters, Survival Hunters still share similar mechanics as other Hunter specializations and a spell-damage based ranger archetype has been explored to some degree, paving the way for something innovative like the Wrath of the Lich King iteration of Survival Hunter. The point is that Survival Hunters are definitely valid as a type of ranged weapon users that the game is otherwise sorely lacking (but could have more of).

To be fair, forcing the ranged weapon-user archetype onto the Hunter class can become problematic since three weapon types are then exclusively reserved for one class. While this problem could be managed with loot table manipulation and the like, what would ultimately be more reasonable is to allow bows, guns, and crossbows to be used by another class. The problem here is that so far, there's no sign of another class, such as Rogues, gaining the ability to use ranged weapons. The new Demon Hunter class will also not use ranged weapons based on its weapon proficiency list, ruling them out as contenders. This means that changing Survival to melee will further increase how exclusive ranged weapons are to two specializations instead of three, which could become problematic in the future since Legion at least prevents this issue with the upcoming Artifacts system.

Ultimately, while this change looks innovative and has been requested by some players (though usually for Beast Mastery spec, which has melee elements already due to the pet), it abandoned previous innovation for a design facet that has numerous contenders in the form of many melee-spec classes, some of which Survival might end up becoming similar to very soon.

2. Survival's gameplay is the most unique out of the three specializations

Prior to Blizzard's changes for Hunters in Warlords of Draenor, which was when they acknowledged that all three specializations were pretty similar in terms of playstyle, Survival had to manage an additional ability, providing some slight differentiation. After the changes, which consisted of some ability removal and passive reworking that surprisingly didn't do much to change how Hunters played in general, Survival remained the most unique in terms of playstyle due to the existence of Black Arrow, though the removal of Kill Shot reducing dynamic gameplay did make the specialization a bit more monotonous to play and similar to the other specializations overall.

The reason I emphasize the existence of Black Arrow so much is because Hunter gameplay partially consists of having a signature move, which is an enhanced Focus dump skill with a cooldown that Hunters generally try to pool Focus for since it's more powerful than Aimed/Arcane Shot, the primary focus dumps. Based on this definition, both Explosive Shot and Black Arrow are considered signature moves, with the latter having a proc to further incentivize its use. Since the other two specializations only have a single signature move, their (single target) ability priority generally consists of the following (with some possible variance):
  • Use signature move.
  • Use Kill Shot.
  • Use Focus dumps, including some talent-related Focus dumps such as Barrage. Marksmanship has some slightly interesting priority choices here.
  • Use Focus generating skill.
In the case of Survival, one would replace the usage of Kill Shot with the second signature move, which has fewer conditions to use, and also add prioritization of proc usage.

While the unique gameplay of Survival is probably a little less than ever compared to the other Hunter specializations, why not further expand on the differentiation instead of changing the specialization to another archetype, which can come off as a lazy way to differentiate and might not successfully differentiate it from the other specializations in terms of overall gameplay? For example, I offered some suggestions to add dynamic to the Survival specialization while attempting to mechanically altering the other two specializations as well.

3. Numerous skills will be obsoleted for Survival

With the transition from ranged to melee, many abilities will need to see some changes since many of them are mechanically designed for usage with a ranged weapon. Aside from the many shot-related abilities such as Black Arrow and Explosive Shot, however, I am concerned about the current design of a few abilities, though I could see how they could be adapted to a melee specialization.

When I thought of a Hunter melee specialization, I immediately also thought of what to do with Disengage since the ability inherently makes the Hunter jump away from the target. In its current iteration, it is possible to use it for forward movement, which would resolve the contradiction of a melee class having an ability that moves them away from the target. However, even with mouse turning at high sensitivity, the method is clunky at best and even if Disengage were reworked to provide forward movement, it would essentially be a Roll with far lower velocity. Thus, Survival Hunters are probably better suited having a different mechanic for their gap closer, which requires some time to account for creation. (Update: Turns out I was correct - Survival at the current time is possibly getting a "Death Grip"-like mechanic)

Camouflage would be incredibly awkward for a melee to have. While it's understandable that, like stealth, Camouflage breaks when a player gets too close and has it broken, this is usually due to the player being out of combat. Camouflage, however, has in-combat utility (to be fair the glyph is terrible) that could be helpful to keep active for the entire 6-second duration. However, being in melee inherently makes the usage of Camouflage while in combat a bit more impractical since melee vulnerability to collateral damage is far higher than that of ranged. While the Hunter could just leave melee range and Camouflage then, it takes time to do that when their Marksmanship and Beast Mastery brethren could probably Camouflage on the spot.

Finally, Trap Launcher, while not necessarily bad for a melee to have since melee usually have some ranged utility, could result in some awkward situations since the Hunter may find it advantageous to toggle the ability off or on in any given situation. This is a bit of a minor nitpick though.

In conclusion, reworking Survival into a melee specialization could potentially be a massive undertaking, assuming the intention is to make the gameplay at least somewhat differentiated from other melee classes/specs.

4. Melee has some inherent disadvantages over ranged (by design)

Aside from issues I went over above such as melee generally need some way to close the gap, a transition from ranged to melee is effectively a nerf in terms of uptime since in general, the effective uptime range drops from 40 yards to 5. To be fair, this isn't too big of a deal but could result in some major problems such as overbuffing as "compensation" when all that was needed were some minor speed steroids, gap closing capability, and the ability to deal some decent damage when the player does happen to have uptime. Ultimately this isn't as big of a deal as it sounds since it seems melee don't have it quite as bad nowadays, but there could be a slated imbalance against melee (again) someday and Survival Hunters would need to at least be somewhat prepared to deal with it.

Final Statements

The plans to make Survival a melee specialization concern me in many ways. The general idea comes off as taking the easy way out in terms of making the three Hunter specializations different, which especially becomes apparent when it is also said there are plans to alter Marksmanship as well by making them potentially petless by design (even though it already exists as an option). What seems even worse is that Survival is the most unique concept when compared to the other two Hunter specializations in terms of both style and gameplay and while there may be some awkward factors like the potentially weird Black Arrow that's generally exclusive to Dark Rangers. It is also worrying that there are some major design obstacles associated with doing such a change, making the change a time-consuming affair that could potentially be better spent expanding upon what was already in place.

After seeing what Blizzard did in an attempt to make the Hunter specializations "different" in Warlords of Draenor, I will admit that it's difficult to be optimistic. However, since it's unlikely that this design decision will be reversed (due to factors such as parallel development meaning this change was likely planned for a while), I hope those behind these changes know what they're doing and maybe Blizzcon will have more detailed information.

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