It was Monday here in the states when I started this post, and since my workplace has some system issues preventing real work from being done, now is the perfect time to theorycraft and write about it!
In my last post, I discussed how the removal of skill points and talent points as rewards in World of Warcraft led to the current state of the game – where loot remains the only steady reward outside of the Heart of Azeroth systems and it alone does not fill the gap as well. I put forward a two sentence idea that wasn’t really made to be insightful or complete – a customized weapon that you leveled. Well, while I think that idea could work, last night as I struggled to get to sleep, a more neutral form of that idea hit, one not tied to anything else.
So…what if we readded weapon skills to WoW?
The problem with the old skill points system was that it largely hampered the ability to equip upgrades, and coupled the fun of getting a new weapon with the crushing tedium of needing to find appropriately leveled targets to thwack with your new, shiny raid weapon – until 300/350/400 points were attained.
For those who haven’t dove into Classic to see it first-hand, basically, weapon skill influences your ability to hit a target by reducing the chance for your attacks to be dodged, parried, or misses, and also improves the chance of a critical strike against the target (not in addition to your critical strike chance, but rather ensuring a higher percentage of that chance applies until maxed out, at which point your full crit chance is available). This, coupled with Hit as a stat and weaponskill as an additional stat meant that in order to be at full effectiveness with a weapon, you needed that category of weapon at full skill, added Hit from gear to a cap which varied by role and class, and in some cases, weaponskill boosts from gear (the prevalance of DPS warriors wearing the mail Edgemaster’s Handguards being driven primarily by how powerful this stat could be). This was just to meet DPS expectations, mind you, not to massively increase your DPS – without these requirements met, you’d often miss with attacks and your DPS would suffer – which didn’t matter much in Vanilla, but this system continued for Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, with weaponskill bonuses on gear being rolled into the single stat of Expertise.
This system had a few flaws, though. For melee, it was an absolute nuisance, because any big weapon upgrade meant committing to dozens of hours of flailing at enemies with the new weapon type, desperately trying to max out the skill. Weaponskill as a stat was seldom available until all of the relevant skills were rolled into Expertise. Tanks had a version of this in Defense rating, which was the easiest to level as a tank (just get hit a lot!) but also then required massive dedication via gearing to get enough added Defense skill to reach a cap to where raid bosses could no longer hit effectively. Where gearing weaponskill was optional for most DPS, gearing Defense was required to be an effective tank, especially since damage mitigation was far less common then, and tanks relied almost solely on high armor, higher health pools, and the defensive stats on their gear to reinforce them against heavy boss damage.
Caster classes also got a bit of a bum deal under this setup. Part of the reason my brain sort of glosses over skill points in general is that up until around mid-Wrath of the Lich King, I hadn’t seriously played anything but a priest. Casters, outside of their equipped melee weapons and wands, did not interact with the skill system in any meaningful way. If I had a mace and an off-hand and a good staff dropped, I could just equip it – if I was bopping something with my staff, I was in trouble anyways. It wasn’t until leveling a Death Knight that I discovered the interaction of Hit, Expertise, and weaponskill, and by that time, the curve was less burdensome. Even in an era like vanilla where melee weren’t as encounter-disadvantaged as they are today, they still had a bigger mountain to climb – to make up for this, casters needed to gear more Hit, but the difference wasn’t substantial enough, I’d say.
All this history is to lead into my sleepless night’s idea!
One of the things missing from WoW is a sense of constant progression, which systems like the Artifact in Legion and now the Heart of Azeroth attempt to reproduce. These systems are okay, but they really serve more as replacements for classic talents, with nothing filling the void left by skill points. If I were to look at the system critically, with my best armchair game designer hat on, what were the flaws in the skill system?
Odd Point Based System – in Vanilla, it made sense, since it was 5 points to a character level, which was clear enough, although still weird. It matched with professions, though!…until The Burning Crusade, where professions went up by 75 points but skills only by 50. The skills in this case were logical, but to a new player, you can see the weirdness in these systems – they seem to be linked, until suddenly they aren’t, but both are also still “skill” systems, and to be at maximum level 60 effectiveness, you need 300 skill. The one point made a difference, at least, which was nice because…
Skill Point Gain May As Well Have Been Random, Since You Couldn’t Track It – all the way until it was removed, skill points were an invisible system. There was no easy way to view your progress, no hooks like “just 10 more hits until that next skill point, guess I should grind a few more mobs!” You just had to hit things over, and over, and over, and over again, until that blue text popped into your chat log. At earlier levels, this was fine, but at the point in the game where you’re so close to maxing it out, now you’re taking hundreds of swings with no luck. The lack of visibility was very frustrating.
Uneven Balance Between Classes and Specializations – sure, a DPS warrior might have needed to max out 3 different two-handed weapon skills, but a protection Warrior might need to do the same with one handed weapons, plus fist weapons, plus Defense skill. A caster would likely only need to max out skill in Wands and they’d be set forever, and a healer with high mana efficiency might not even need to do that. If you PvPed, regardless of role, you needed to level Defense skill, but it was also the easiest to level since you just needed to be hit a lot. The spread is another reason I would argue that Skills weren’t the best game design – I almost never interacted with them as a healer in vanilla and a shadow Priest in TBC, but come Wrath, I leveled enough for the acheivements they gave, just for the acheivements! My friends who all played melee roles needed to level their skills, and a number of them too, since the flavor of the month best melee weapon often changed types from tier to tier.
Rough Edges – it adds flavor, to be fair, but I would argue that needing to level skills in different weapon types in order to use them to full effectiveness is something that is annoying. Flavorful, yes, but also annoying.
So given all of these, what would I propose?
Skills In A Category, First – I’d propose that the first thing most players could level would be a category – One-Handed Weapons, Two-Handed Weapons, Ranged Weapons, Defense, and Magic. These would then have subcategories for the given weapon types, and in the case of Magic, spell schools.
The System Must Be Additive, Not Reductive – Skills ultimately ended up being removed because having to level a new one at max level felt bad and made your character, otherwise incredibly powerful, feel like a scrub. In a new version of the system, I’d argue that gaining levels shouldn’t be done in order to ensure your weapon hits, but rather, to grant a bonus effect of some sort. Leveling Two-Handed weapons should grant a bonus to Critical Strike rating, for example – it could be a flat percentage increase to the rating (which would scale as new expansions expanded the level caps) or it could be a flat bonus per level equal to some value (maybe you get however much rating equals 0.1% Critical Strike chance at that character level).
The System Should Be Transparent and Tied to Other Progression – Rather than 5 points a level, with no clear way to see when you’ll gain said points, what I envision in my head is an experience bar, and the skills should be matched to player levels. Right now, for example, a skill could cap at level 120, and the experience would scale up per level, capturing the gameplay of the original system but pacing the rewards differently. Instead of a point every so often, you’d gain a full level every so often, with the rewards that would entail – but if you look at your combat log, you could see the XP gained per Skill – maybe it would even be a message delivered after combat to show the aggregate total XP for all actions taken during your combat duration.
Rewards Should Be Designed for Pacing and To Not Be Complete By Endgame – Original skills were never maxed out by the time you first dinged level 60 and jumped in to some fresh endgame content. Instead, you were often behind by a handful, depending on how you leveled. If you played a hunter and only used a bow the whole time, you were probably low 200’s in Bow skill, and assuming you kited effectively, your Defense probably wasn’t very high. If you played a melee class, you probably had higher defense, with a very in-the-fray class like Warrior meaning higher defense, but it still would have been low to mid 200’s, meaning you had a lot of progress left. In my proposed system, hitting 120 today in BfA would mean being around level 90-100 in Skills – you’d still have some progress, especially since there would be a split for the offensive skills.
Split, You Say? – Yes, as I mentioned above, my ideal way to avoid punitive design besides the reward mechanisms would be to have a main category Skill, and then subcategories for specific weapons or spell schools. Rather than gaining equal XP for both, we could, say, split 60/40 with 60% to the main skill category and the remaining 40% to the subcategory. This allows you to max out the main category sooner (but still on a delay, building in the reward delay by splitting experience), and then allows you to max out subcategories easier for putting in the work, since once Two Handers is maxed out, you can put on Swords and go hog wild smacking enemies until that maxes out, with nothing leeching off of it.
What About Magic? – Spell schools should matter again for more than interrupts, and so I would propose bonuses by both the main Magic category and spell school subcategories, similar to the melee ideas above. However, I think this would be fun for classes with multi-school spells – think Mind Spike for Priests, Frostfire Bolt for Mages, etc. Healing would also fit here, whether it is its own category or folded into the spell school of the class/spec in question (Nature for Druids/Shamans/Monks, Holy for Priest/Paladin).
Taking It Further – The last thing I find worth thinking about is specialization. One of the things I think a lot of people like (or at least, sort of enjoy) about the Classic gameplay experience is that there is an incentive to pick certain races for min-maxing. If I want to be a DPS warrior, my friends are Alliance, and I know that the absolute pinnacle of weapons in vanilla WoW is Might of Menethil, a two-handed mace, well, I’m going to roll a human. Why? Humans have Mace Specialization, and so they have an innately higher mace skill than other races. Does it make a huge difference? No – but it doesn’t have to, because I just need a little extra edge in my raid damage.
Now, I wouldn’t suggest that these specializations be tied to a race, but rather, make them a choice. Let’s say you decide to go Mace specialization, Two-handed specifically. Okay, so you start in your faction capital, easily enough, there’s a trainer there. He tells you that the concussive force of a blunt mace hit is your greatest asset in combat, because it can slow enemies, and tells you to level your Two-Handed Mace skill to a certain level and then come back and show him your skills. You do it, and great – he teaches you a passive trait that makes your melee hits have a Procs per Minute-based chance to slow an enemy, with the caveat for balance that it only works in the open world. Fair enough, now world quests are more fun, you have a new vector of power progression, and you did a quest that explains why it happens and tries to connect it in-world to the end result.
Let’s say you do this every 10 skill levels, learning some new aspect of your weapon and gaining a new passive perk – maybe it just upgrades the proc rate on the current trait and gives it new effects, not unlike Azerite Essences in 8.2. Eventually, your home city trainer is out of teachings – he doesn’t have anything more, but he’s heard talk of a true Mace Master (Mace-ter?) out in the wilds in some other zone, and sends you to his door for training. There you might learn a second trait, and this one is active – it could be an additional interrupt, maybe an AoE stun/damage ability.
You repeat this cycle once more, this time taking you to current content, to a new master, and they teach you a final passive trait while using Two-Handed Maces – your auto-attacks can cleave now, dealing a fraction of damage to all non-crowd controlled enemies in a frontal cone in melee range. It’s powerful, it gives you a suitably large DPS increase overall, and that’s great.
However, there’s a catch to all of these – you can learn all of the available specializations for your class, but you can only set it to one at a time, and you must visit a trainer (a la old talent respecs) in order to set it. In this way, it emulates the old DPS increases from skillups, but in a new and different way, with quests and story content tied into it. It gives players an interesting choice to make – maybe a two-handed sword is what you’d prefer, but man, that cleaving auto-attack as a 2H mace wielder sounds pretty helpful for Mythic Plus. I definitely haven’t sat down and designed anything for real, but while this could be a balancing nightmare, I think the tradeoff is worth it.
Overall, while I don’t know how good or bad my system would actually be, I think WoW needs more of the older model of secondary progression back – and skills could be a good candidate if done well!