Ability Design and RPGs – The Difference of Additive and Subtractive Designs

I’ve leveled both a Black Mage and Dragoon in Endwalker, with the changes that both jobs had to their existing cores from prior Final Fantasy XIV content.

Something interesting happened to both jobs – they had a button removed, for Black Mage, Enochian, and for Dragoon, Blood of the Dragon. Those abilities, as they existed prior to Endwalker, were maintenance buffs – you hit a single button that did nothing more than enable an aspect of your job gauge, and worked as a sort of dummy check for both jobs. Endwalker removing these was interesting, because they’re only removed as buttons – the buffs still exist and they work through much the same means as before, but just woven into gameplay better. You still need to manage your rotation and abilities effectively, but you’re no longer punished for not hitting the button or hitting it at inopportune times.

And this made me think about the ways in which FFXIV’s design works compared with WoW, and that leading intro gets me to the topic for today – class/job design in RPGs and how these two MMOs in particular handle things.

FFXIV is an additive design. Each expansion adds new abilities, and the way they’ve solved the problem of button bloat (to a point) is to use Traits to enhance abilities, which uprank spells and often change them to new animations, new icons, new sound effects, and more. In the few cases they have removed things, they’ve often kept the complexity and depth of a job similar by using new mechanics to replace things that are removed, or in the cases I mentioned above, by putting in the core mechanic minus the button press.

Functionally, they add maybe 1-2 actual new abilities per expansion, but the trait changes are far more than rankups and often can make a job feel drastically different. Warriors in Endwalker are a great example, as the change of Raw Intuition to Bloodwhetting changes the way the job plays drastically, but doesn’t add a new button or require any change in keybinds. This means that the game manages change pretty well for the most part – each expansion brings new abilities and a new gameplay feel at the new level cap, but then level scaled content feels roughly similar and you’re not learning a new job so much as the small tweaks (save for major shifts like the Thin Air change in Endwalker for White Mage, which affects older content more than current content).

So in FFXIV, there’s an incentive and reason to learn your job outside of just doing current content, as those skills will hold as valid for a long time to come. It feels…well, like an RPG, where your skills progress and advance, being added to rather than subtracted from – an additive design and what most of expect from an RPG, much less an MMO.

World of Warcraft, on the other hand, has made use of a subtractive design for several years now, starting with the pruning of Warlords of Draenor and reaching the current form we recognize in Legion. Classes and specs have a base core of abilities and talents that receive temporary additions via expansion-spanning alternate progression systems, from Artifacts to Covenants, and these twists define a spec for a given expansion, but no longer than that. When the next expansion comes, these abilities are removed from core gameplay, the stat tweaks and minor traits that accompany such systems are also removed, and some new thing takes their place. Rarely are classes or specs themselves added to, but instead the design effort goes into temporary abilities that last only the span of an expansion.

Something that is clear to me in this contrast is that WoW changes so much expansion to expansion as a result of this that there is little benefit to mastering a class or spec in a given expansion over the long term. Class and spec design end up being moving targets, instead of iterations, and each expansion’s new system changes the feeling of a spec enough to render a lot of prior mastery meaningless. Shadowlands has a core for most specs that is not that different from BfA, but then Covenants and Soulbinds change things a lot from BfA, by changing the priority of rotations. The game makes this clear – you get this ability for now, and that knowledge in advance actually poses a problem – what is the point?

In a game that lasts a long time, one of the great things you can get from thoughtful design is mastery of a class or job. If I play Demon Hunter for 10 years, it is reasonable to assume that this play should translate in 10 years to a core level of competency and mastery. There’s also a logical thought to the idea that adding different tweaks and touches expansion-to-expansion can refine a game and offer long-time players a unique challenge to conquer, so I can see where the idea comes from.

However, in practice, one of the things that started pushing me out of WoW is how different each spec plays in a given expansion. Through to WoD, there was an additive design that iterated on what came before, perfect or not, and attempted to bring things into parity between specs and classes. It made long-term investment in the game easier, as there was a value into playing the game long-term and how that knowledge translated into future content. Today, that mastery aspect of the game has largely faded – there is still a core there you can master, but these abilities and their gameplay feel are often transformed and changed so much by borrowed power systems and their knock-on consequences that they feel very different. It often makes the time spent on mastery of your class and spec feel…wasted. Yeah, I can learn to play my main spec in Shadowlands to a great level of mastery and be confident in my abilities, but then…I know in 10.0, whenever the hell that comes out, the game will change and the way my specs play will be different on some level, and the abilities added are likely to be temporary and thus the effort put into them feels wasted itself.

The recent fiasco of the early Mage Tower launch exemplified this. Legion was 5 years ago, and the Mage Tower only 4 years ago, and the game has already changed so much in that time that scaling things to the numerical equivalents of our Legion power alone was not enough. They removed borrowed power, but hey, guess what – that makes classes feel worse and in some cases has drastic implications on how a spec plays. This isn’t even unique to Legion Timewalking, as timewalking in nearly every expansion requires tweaks and changes to tuning because the game doesn’t have a stable foundation for class and spec design. The game has seemingly given up on any aspect of designing the core of a class or spec for fun gameplay, and instead pins all the hopes and dreams of a player on the borrowed power waiting at the end. It means that leveling doesn’t teach much if anything, because what you learn at the endgame will drastically transform how you play.

In the past, WoW was built for this to a point, as old talent systems often allowed players to make a lot of the adjustments that now come via minor borrowed power systems. By shuffling these choices into the borrowed power systems and then removing and re-adding them every expansion, there’s no real sense of progression or meaningful retention of abilities, just a chaotic feeling where things change with little discernible logic.

FFXIV’s gameplay stability allows the developers to do things like Ultimate raids, which are time locked to the level they are introduced at, and that works in FFXIV because class/job design maintains a foundation of play that keeps a meaningful progression of abilities throughout the leveling process. WoW could not do anything similar in its current form, because the game isn’t built for it – classes and specs change too much expansion to expansion with a singular focus on the current expansion’s endgame. There are players still progressing Ultimate fights in the start of Endwalker, because that is an available option that is rewarding to players – and short of one major issue I’ve heard mentioned (Ultima Weapon Ultimate feels bad for White Mage because of the Thin Air change in Endwalker), people are progressing and clearing these fights after picking up right where they left off in the prior expansion.

Ultimately (what a segue choice!), what I think WoW needs more of is a sense of meaningful and unique progression between expansions. Shadowlands did have rank ups for several abilities, but short of gameplay feel and the tooltip in your spellbook, there’s no real tell that this change happened. I don’t expect that WoW will ever change to a gameplay model that pays equal mind to prior content as it does to endgame, because they tried a barebones version of that once with Cataclysm and the outcry was fierce and quick. But I’d love to see a world where 10.0 is focused on a meaningful sense of permanent progression, where spec tweaks are used in favor of full reworks, reworks are sparing and focused on the highest needs, and where the things we learn in the new content will carry into newer content and not be removed for arbitrary reasons both IRL and in lore.

WoW’s biggest sin in ability design isn’t even the prevalence of theorycrafting and cookie cutter builds, or a total lack of meaningful gameplay balance, but both of those are more clearly an issue because everything changes so much expansion to expansion that theorycrafting is needed to make heads or tails of the changes and these changes create the disparity in gameplay balance.

For me, fixing that creates a chance at redemption for the game, but will Blizzard do it? Well…I don’t know.

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