Blizzard knew that its controversial new augmentation evokers—the first support class ever in World of Warcraft—were going to be overpowered. That choice was "deliberate," the game's director told us in a BlizzCon interview, although he added that "obviously they came out the gates too strong."
Augmentation evokers dropped like a bomb into WoW last summer, exploding the meta with a bunch of controversial firsts. It was the first time the MMO had ever introduced a new specialization for an existing class. It was the first time that a class or a specialization was ever announced while an expansion was underway. It was arguably the first time that a game-changing new element had been introduced in the middle of a competitive season. It was the first support specialization ever produced in a nearly 20-year-old MMO. The list goes on.
"We knew it was tremendously high risk, high degree of difficulty, uncharted territory," game director Ion Hazzikostaas said.
Augmentation evokers add damage reduction, movement, and damage buffs to allies in their party or raid. Theorycrafters predicted that there would be no good way to balance the new specialization. Because its damage was largely made up of the extra boost it gave to other players, it could be wildly overpowered (with the right players and the right composition) or wildly underpowered (with less-proficient players or the wrong classes/specs).
Blizzard erred toward making them overpowered, Hazzikostas said.
"We intended them to be on the strong side. That is, I think, deliberate," he said. "Something we've learned when introducing something new, particularly a new play style—the community is naturally skeptical of things they don't understand, don't know. Why would you want this unproven, weird new thing in your group, when you know that a fire mage or whoever is going to give you the results that you want?"
Within weeks of launch, augmentation evokers were the new "it" class. Four of them were generally required for high end mythic raiding progression, edging out other classes in those 20-player groups. In mythic plus competitive dungeons, a "god comp" quickly emerged that included an augmentation evoker, shadow priest and fire mage.
Statistical analysis of which classes were played in those dungeons showed there was soon less variation than there had ever been in the modern history of Warcraft.
The potential for that kind of disruption is what led Blizzard to make the unusual decision to launch augmentation evokers smack in the middle of a season, Hazzikostas said.
"We knew this was going to be not totally balanced, and disrupting the rollout of a new raid tier, all of that stuff, was going to be a much more challenging time to land that," he said, adding that the idea of a support class in WoW had been in development for much longer than the current Dragonflight expansion.
"Now I will say obviously they came out the gates too strong," he said, but the developers wanted them to be accepted, and because their contributions aren't immediately obvious, they were worried players would overlook them.
Hazzikostas compared augmentation evokers to discipline priests, who deal damage as a primary way of healing.
"Remember when we first revamped discipline priests to make them deal damage?" Hazzikostas asked. "They were getting kicked from dungeon groups left and right. Why is this healer just DPSing all the time? Where are the heals?"
In some ways, augmentation evoker is even worse in that regard, because its damage doesn't show up at all on in-game dungeon damage trackers. As late as a month ago, I'd hear dungeon leads having to patiently explain to people I pugged with on my aug that no, I really was top damage in the dungeon—it just didn't show.
"So come out strong and tone it down a little bit was definitely part of the plan," he said. "Obviously not as strong as we came out. I think there's still work to do."
That also means there are no immediate plans for another support class, Hazzikostas said. "The idea of a support class in WoW is one that we continue to be happy with, and we want to continue to shore up augmentation. We're glad we did it. Do we want more? That's a good question. I think it would have to make sense for a specific class, for a specific time and place."
For example, Blizzard will not add it as a third specialization for demon hunters, he said: "Demon hunters are not about supporting others—just ask our friend Illidan."
They also won't randomly change any existing specializations to be support specs.
"Something that comes up at times is, would we ever change any existing specs? The answer is no," Hazzikostas said. "Enhancement shamans came up to me literally this weekend being like, please don't make us a support spec. I'm like, no, you've been a mail DPS for years and years and years. We're not just going to suddenly change that. But if there are other hooks down the line that make sense, we would explore it."
Two things likely will be added to the game down the line, however. One is more classes for Dracthyr, the dragonkin race that are currently exclusively evokers.
"Being clever, adaptable sorts, the Dracthyr might learn one day how to hit you with a sword or stab you with a dagger," he said. "But for now they're focused on using their innate gifts and the magic they can channel from the Aspects."
The second possibility—but only after the Dragonflight expansion is over—is adding empowered spells to other classes. Empowered spells are currently only used by evokers, and ramp up in power the longer you hold down a key or button.
"What we'd said when rolling it out was that we wanted this to be evoker exclusive for at least an expansion," Hazzikostas said. "Down the line, if there are mechanics or places where it feels like it really makes sense, we're open to it, subject to player feedback. We wouldn't literally change an existing ability, but the fantasy of [hunters'] Aimed Shot lends itself to empowerment. You're charging something up, that sort of thing. But we have no immediate plans to do it."
He agreed fire mages' Meteor AOE damage spell might be another example.
"Combat designers were under the shared understanding, this is not a tool that is available for their use," Hazzikostas said. "As we move into [WoW's next expansion,] the War Within, it is. This was their property—that is the evokers' toy, do not take the evokers' toy. Now it's more communal. If there's a great idea, we'll see where we land."
Blizzard is taking a close look at how to adjust and tune augmentation so that the "skill floor and skill ceiling" issue can be addressed somewhat, he said. The goal would be for the impact of inviting an augmentation evoker to join your group to be roughly the same as if you invited a devastation-spec, or pure-damage, evoker.
"People shouldn't be told, oh hey, I should switch to augmentation for group invites, or because it's going to be better for the group, rather than just playing devastation and doing damage myself," Hazzikostas said. "If you literally want to win [the Mythic Dungeon Invitational], then there's going to be some right answers there. But even at the 99th percentile, for everyone else, everything should work and people should feel they can play what they enjoy and achieve success at almost the very highest levels."
With the skill required to both play augmentation evoker well, and the party skill required to fully take advantage of it, that balancing pass is going to be almost as much of a challenge as introducing the specialization in the first place. But with players clamoring for more new cross-specialization abilities—like the fun combinations that exist in World of Warcraft: Classic's Season of Discovery later this month—figuring it out has to be a high priority.