I don't envy the World of Warcraft development team. They've got a population of 10+ million players to please, a relentless stream of expansion packs and patches to deliver, and a vast array of content to refresh and balance. It's a hard job. Right now - they're taking on one of the hardest jobs possible: introducing fundamental change to the core mechanics of the game - the talent system - in an attempt to improve it.
The new talent system let you assign points into a tree of abilities every level or so. Instead, you're given a menu of abilities that unlock at pre-defined intervals, and at those intervals you'll pick one from three. It feels, immediately, less RPG-y that by not assigning points every level (or in Cata, every other level) you're making less choices. But, I do agree with Ghostcrawler who pointed out in his blog that “you will have more choices that *matter*.”
His point, and the objective of the talent point revamp, is that WoW is dominated by cookie cutter builds. That their game, an RPG, doesn't let players have choices in how they develop their character.
But in making that point, and in developing an alternative to talents, the WoW team have exposed one of the fundamental faults of WoW: that every system of character improvement is dominated by orthodox builds, and there's practically zero potential for player choice.
At maximum level, where Ghostcrawler says that most of their players “spend the majority of their time,” character power and improvement is determined by the armour and weapons players pick up from dungeons, daily quests and PvP. Players then customise their armour and weapons through the in-game economy. Here's the problem: progression at end-game demands stat increases. The stat increases come from armour upgrades, and are augmented by the addition of gems, enchants and reforges.
Jewelcrafters produce gems that can added into sockets on items, improving base stats. Enchanters provide scrolls which are added onto the item, improving base stats. And some of those stats can be moved around via reforging.
Here's the problem: those system seem to exist to support the in-game economy - not to give players choice.
Jewellrycrafting first: for every every build in the game, there are cookie cutter builds for the gems that you'll add into your armour. If you're playing a Feral Druid, you'll want agility gems in every socket possible. Fury Warriors want strength wherever possible. Priests want intellect gems. The list goes on - but fundamentally, whatever your spec, you'll want a specific gem to go in your slots.
Enchanting is exactly the same. Enchanting demands that you improve your weapon and armour according to what your spec demands. Each piece of armour will have an orthodox stat increase that you'll want, and no choice as to what to apply. Every Warrior wants the same weapon enchant. Every Priest wants the same bracer enchant. There's almost zero choice.
Finally, re-forging. Reforging is used to reduce stats that your spec needs on a piece of armour, and increase the stats of something you do need. For example, warlocks will first reforge their crit rating to hit rating until they reach the hit cap - the point in game where the maths and dice rolls at the heart of boss fights are weighted so that all of our warlock's spells hit. From that point, our warlock will reforge any crit rating to haste. They'll do fewer critical hits, but they will cast spells faster - meaning it's a straight increase in their damage output.
The question is - will, or even should, the WoW developers rethink how player progression works at end-game?
Personally, I think they should. I think the best decision they've made in years is the introduction of transmogrification in the latest patch. Transmogrification finally allows players the chance to wear any equipment they've gathered in the past to the very latest content - essentially making all of WoW a dressing room to create a cool look for your character. It doesn't change your character's power - what transmogrification does is transfer the stats of one item, onto the stats of another. But it does mean you've finally got the chance to look different to all the other max level warriors.
I'd like to see that customisation applied to player abilities as well. I think the route to get there is going to be really hard, and the only way I can see for the WoW team to get there is to introduce profession slots that have no statistical. For instance - could every meta-gem, rather than offering an increase in base stats - give an extra bonus ability? Could weapon enchants have a unique activated ability, rather than deliver a rigid increases in your damage output?
The model here should be engineering. Engineering is by far the most fun profession in your game. Engineers, if they choose to do so, can fire rockets from my hands, deploy shields, fire a boomerang that can collect loot from dead bodies from afar... All fun, useful stuff, but not directly about player power. However, all the engineering silliness is overshadowed because it conflicts with the enchanting slots. If I'm raiding, I don't need my rocket gloves. The game's designed in a way that I need that extra intellect. And that feels like a real shame.
When reading Ghostcrawler's defense of WoW's new talent system, I found myself nodding and agreeing. But I really want the team to go further. Much, much further.