The Role of Role Stats in a Role Playing Game and Their Death in MMOs

Role stats are dead. Sorta.

If you play only WoW, I just said something that hasn’t meant a damn thing in around 6 years – back in Warlords of Draenor and later fully in Legion, Blizzard killed role stats completely. In FFXIV, they hang on by the barest of threads as a thing that only tanks and healers have and that both roles largely ignore.

So what are role stats, to start with? Well, simple enough – stats that apply only to a specific role. In WoW, there used to be a ton of these – Hit and Expertise as accuracy stats that applied primarily to DPS, a whole laundry list for tanks like defense rating, block, dodge, and parry, and then healers had Spirit to help their mana regen and, once upon a time, also had separate mana per 5 seconds on gear.

What this functionally meant is that picking a role to raid in was a lock of sorts, because loot would often be role locked just on merit of having role-specific stats. While a Holy Priest in WoW could make use of Hit to increase the likelihood of their Smites and Holy Fires hitting a raid boss, that wasn’t really their job and thus gear with Hit on it wasn’t for them. Likewise, an Affliction Warlock wouldn’t really have use for Spirit, because it would not increase their DPS as much as other secondary stats. For tanks, it created a whole game of gearing where you wanted to get Defense to a precise cap but then get the other tank-specific ratings to a level where your survival felt like a sure thing, and for DPS, balancing accuracy stats like Hit (for all) and Expertise (for melee) was a minigame unto itself.

In a big way, these stats helped define some builds back in the day. Until dual-spec for talents was added in midway through Wrath of the Lich King, you probably raided on a single role per character, because getting loot from raid was hard enough for a single role, much less trying to run two different gear sets. In some ways, it could be made easier – most healers with caster DPS offspecs had a talent that you could take to convert their Spirit stat into Hit, making the healing gear worthwhile for those DPS specs and in some cases even making the healing gear best-in-slot for a DPS spec main role, and use of gems and enchants meant you could always try to work around the need for those stats by slotting them in and out of gear on talent swaps. Given that swapping your specs was much more of a production back then, it made some measure of sense – the game didn’t want you swapping willy-nilly but instead picking very deliberately and making gearing and building decisions to support both specs uniquely.

However, the use of these role stats fell out of favor over time, and there are a few culprits we can look at.

On the WoW side, it’s easy to see in some ways – dual-speccing made the need to have multiple gear sets feel bad, the way the caps worked was binary most of the time – for stats like both accuracy stats or defense rating on tanks, you needed just enough to meet the content you were fighting and any more than that was wasted, while stats like Spirit for healers were binary in that any more than you needed to finish a fight successfully was too much. Because of how WoW’s combat systems work, dungeon bosses were only 2 levels above players but raid bosses were 3, which meant that a raid-ready set was wasting stats for dungeon content while a dungeon-ready set was insufficient for raiding, and while we were still a long way out from Mythic Plus and dungeons being optimization-relevant, it was a concern held by some. Lastly, Cataclysm brought two substantial changes that paved the way for this – the revamped and smaller talent trees no longer held room for the “spare” talents like ones that turned Spirit into Hit, and then, of course, the biggest concern was Reforging – since you could now take secondary stats from a piece of gear and turn a portion of them into any other secondary that wasn’t already on the gear piece, it turned capped secondary stats like accuracy and tank ratings into juggling acts of moving around miniscule amounts of stats to get bigger returns.

Reforging was the nail in coffin of role stats mostly, as by Mists of Pandaria, fan-site tools like Ask Mr. Robot made it so that any gear upgrade or change was a huge ask of reforging secondary stats to balance around precise caps of rating, including new gems and enchants. While these could be seen as immersive to some players, many others would come to find these gameplay elements tedious and tiresome, and so after an initial round of pruning that got Defense Rating back in Cataclysm, Warlords of Draenor saw nearly all role stats removed, accompanied with the removal of Reforging and the removal of guaranteed gem sockets on gear, with sockets now being a bonus roll enhancement to loot with a cap of one socket. To make up for this somewhat, two new secondary stats were added – Multistrike and Versatility, and both healers and tanks were given pseudo-secondary stats that would only appear on jewelry and trinkets – a new form of Spirit for healers and a new stat called Bonus Armor for tanks. By the time Legion rolled around, Multistrike was gone, as was Spirit and Bonus Armor, and the game has basically functioned this way ever since (hey, 3 expansions might as well be forever in World of Warcraft).

Final Fantasy XIV has had it’s own flirtations with role stats as well. At the launch of ARR, the game had an accuracy stat that was actually quite necessary in all roles, as the game’s damage meta required tanks and healers to land damaging abilities for tough DPS checks. It also had a Parry stat for tanks, and healer DPS was more involved back then, as Healers needed the Intelligence stat to do damage, but did not get much via gear, and thus had to use an ability called Cleric Stance to swap their Mind stat with Intelligence – nerfing their healing throughput, but increasing their damage throughput, and further amplifying this effect through the application of percentage-based reduction to healing and increase to damage output. You could only swap it on or off every 5 seconds, which meant that you were committed to at least 2 full GCDs with it on or off. In addition, healers also have the stat Piety, which increases MP regeneration.

Today, most of the role stats have dropped off – Accuracy was replaced in Stormblood by Direct Hit, a new secondary stat that increases damage dealt by 25%, with the rating amount determining the chance of that increase occurring, while Parry for tanks was replaced with Tenacity at the same time and Piety for healers remains as-is. However, because of the game’s damage meta, yet again there is an interesting effect on these stats – most tank and healer BiS lists exclude gear with large amounts of their role stats (or even any of it) and the recommendations of most expert players are to only run these stats to “comfort levels” – meaning as little as possible. Instead, in fact, healer BiS lists are more likely to suggest melding Materia for Direct Hit, a secondary stat with no healing contribution, than they are to suggest Piety, while most tank sets meld no Tenacity at all and instead pile up DPS-contributing stats like Crit, Determination, and Direct Hit (depending on the job, as some tanks have abilities with guaranteed DH built-in that make melding it less worthwhile). DPS players, free from the burden of accuracy, can instead gear entirely around stats to improve the damage done by their abilities, with the only caps being theory-crafted stat tiers which are micro-level optimizations you can do.

What’s interesting is that in Final Fantasy XIV, these stats were removed and trimmed in a way similar to WoW’s pruning of them, but at the same time, most of the factors in WoW that caused it aren’t present in FFXIV. FFXIV locks each job to a single role and so there’s not a DPS White Mage or healing Paladin where you would need to maintain multiple gear sets with differing stats, nor is there a situation where you would have to juggle different caps for differing modes of content. On top of that, FFXIV doesn’t have the gearing diversity that WoW does – in WoW, one tier of gear can have 3-5 different item options per slot (and far, far more for slots like ring or trinket), where in FFXIV, you have basically two choices per slot at the current Savage item level – an augmented tomestone piece or the raid dropped item. Yet, in spite of this, FFXIV has moved rapidly away from most role stats, starting with far fewer (3 compared to 7 in WoW) and cut them down to just two in less time (the first major stat cuts in WoW were with Cataclysm, 5 years post-launch, while the timeline from ARR launch to Stormblood seeing these stats cut down was only 4 years).

So I guess in the end, I find myself asking this – why have the major genre movers moved away from these stats?

I think I have a few opinions as to why.

Unfun-ness: There’s a maxim in game design that someone’s tedium is someone else’s fun, and I think that’s true – so I won’t say that role stats are completely and truly unfun, but I do think it deserves to be said that stats which have minimal viscerally-felt impact can feel that way more naturally. Defense rating isn’t a big number that goes off, and the effect it had on damage taken can feel insignificant – hard to tell without logging and reviewing those logs for damage taken per second. Piety doesn’t give FFXIV healers big heals or big damage – and since the game provides strong-enough passive regen through base Piety and role actions like Lucid Dreaming to push MP higher without stacking Piety, taking too much feels bad, or at the very least, doesn’t feel as good as seeing a critical direct hit DPS spell or a crit heal with high Determination pushing the base number even higher. It feels good to do your job well, but these stats don’t amplify the fun by pointing out their contribution the way that crits/direct hits do. They just sort of…work, and that’s fine but it isn’t exciting in the same way (arguably, this is also why Determination in FFXIV and Versatility in WoW feel bad compared to their competing secondary stats – they at least make number go up but they do it in a way that is so opaque they are seldom felt).

Caps Can Feel Bad: The idea of accuracy stats and defense ratings are fine – you only need X amount to stop the real big hits from landing or to be able to hit all the time, and it’s interesting to have stats where there is a hard cap of value in place, at least in a theoretical sense. However, in a gameplay sense, this turns into a problem as the scaling value of gear in both game’s vertical progression systems means that hitting the cap precisely becomes harder, leading either to excess stats with no value or taking less than you truly need to cap and accepting the problems that can bring if, say, you hit the bad luck bingo with your biggest-hitting ability missing. Both games also did a pretty poor job of communicating how the stats worked around their caps, and it was likely that you either had an external guide or simulation telling you what you needed. In FFXIV, they worked around this with caps that upgraded per raid boss, not just tier, so the accuracy needed increased over the course of a single tier and over the expansion, and on top of that, required different amounts of Accuracy for flanking positional attacks compared to rear compared to front compared to magical damage. But this still feels pretty bad, because an absolutely obsessive min-maxer might start building sets per encounter while some people were “leaving damage on the table” if they ran their end-boss set on the first boss for reclears and then the Extreme trials had different accuracy caps of their own and you can see how this got overcomplicated quickly.

Both Games Mentioned Had Terrible Flaws In Their Solutions To Managing Caps: WoW’s role stat system was undone by the absolutely crippling process of changing gear in your set in Mists of Pandaria, where you’d need a premium sim, a pile of new gems and enchants, and 20 minutes with the Reforging NPC to make the gear just right (anyone complaining about simming in Shadowlands can absolutely kick rocks because back in my day, it was an absolute requirement). It worked (for a given definition of “worked”) but it felt terrible and made the process of getting new gear feel bad, so it was stripped. I think that there was too much thrown out here (I think capped stats were the issue more than Reforging, so you could either have gotten rid of one or the other but both was excessive) but it was clear that something needed to change, as the process was becoming a weight on players. Likewise, FFXIV’s Materia system was fine enough for getting to caps, but if you were reliant on Materia to reach Accuracy cap, you could encounter problems when your gear was synced down, as syncing gear down removes the effect of Materia on stats. This meant that any Accuracy gained via melds was lost, which could put missing attacks back on the table (depending on the content). While level-synced content in FFXIV often item level syncs with some generosity, if you’re doing current-expansion content that has an item level sync in effect, this can create problems as mentioned – it’s the main reason that Ultimate raids have a more precise BiS list, because Dragonsong’s Reprise at current gear levels will let you keep your Materia melds but the prior Ultimates will not, requiring some measure of substat management to ensure maximum performance. It’s a definite juggling act!

Reduced Perceived Value of Player Build in Game: Both WoW and FFXIV are sort-of RPGs in name only, as while they have stat systems and some measure of player choice, much of the option to have a unique build is stripped out. In FFXIV, once cross-classing was removed in Stormblood, that was out the window, and in WoW, once Mists of Pandaria brought the “pick one of three” talent tiering system, build choice and identity became far less of a thing. While WoW still has some measure of build choice, the game has moved towards pushing players away from trap and bad choices, where talents are built and balanced around an ideal state where they’re never that far apart and so even taking all passives can get you pretty far. Meanwhile, in FFXIV, build choice has never been much of a thing – even in the era of cross-classing, you often did so only to ensure you had crucial abilities for your role, like having Esuna for healers or Flash for tanks, and it was rare you would see a truly-unique build where someone cross-classed themselves into a unique identity. For the majority of players in both games, builds aren’t the hotness anymore, for better or worse – because most people want to be maximally effective in their chosen content, they take what works to reach that goal. I think that Blizzard is going to take an interesting path towards bringing builds back with Dragonflight’s new talent system and I am interested to see how that works out, because it is difficult to say right now if it will get to a point of true unique builds again or if everyone will have mathed out the optimal route, while FFXIV largely puts building your character down to cosmetic appearance and with small measures of gear building through item choice in a given item level tier and Materia melds.

In Closing – What Was Lost, What Was Gained

Role stats are an interesting microcosm of the broader movements of the RPG genre and the MMO genre as a whole, to me. I think that there’s something lost in the sense of having stats that make you do your job better, that offer an interesting puzzle to solve with gearing as you try to balance the necessary amounts of cap-able stats while gaining as much raw power in the margins as possible, and that means that gearing loses some of the engaging nature it once had. In WoW, the team there has been trying to replace that feeling through post-cap progression and borrowed power systems and those have, arguably, been a major detractor that has made things in WoW feel pretty awful at times. Meanwhile, FFXIV still has role stats, sort of, but they feel so insignificant and undesirable as to be meaningless. The only thought I’ve given Piety as a healer main is trying to evade it, more often than not, while I can meld nearly limitless amounts of Direct Hit to my gear to improve my DPS (since healer gear never has DH on it baseline and thus it can be melded in all slots on a given item). Likewise on my tanking jobs, Tenacity is a burden I ignore while taking on the crit, determination, and DH I want (because Gunbreaker as my tank main can make use of it!), so while it is there technically, it rarely factors into decision making around gear other than the simple act of avoidance.

On the other hand, I think that it is worth saying loudly that most role stats were simply dull and only worth having on your gear to avert catastrophe rather than willingly taking them on because they were exciting. Sure, yes, they gave you a measure of build control and the ability to define yourself as an invincible tank clad in iron or a healer whose limitless reserves of mana could heal any ailment, but more often than not, these stats did not present as fun class fantasies you could indulge but instead as required caps to ensure you weren’t a burden. Taking defense rating was solely done to ensure a raid boss couldn’t turn you into paste with a massive crit, and taking Hit or Expertise was less about being a surgically-accurate assassin and more about making sure your Scourge Strike didn’t miss and fuck up your damage output for the whole fight.

In both games’ cases, I’d argue that neither has found a truly suitable replacement for building to a role. WoW tries by having some conversion, like tanks who get a small bit of parry out of having Critical Strike rating, while in FFXIV, most role stats are either down to benefits your active abilities handle better or replaced with something that actually is somewhat exciting (I think Direct Hit is kind of dull and having two modes of what is effectively a critical strike in-game is weird, but it at least has a noticed and easily observed impact on your performance). But in the end, both games remain popular and a fair bit above their competition, so either both games have locked-in audiences (I would say this is partially accurate!) or most players in the genre are generally okay with the missing role stats. It is an interesting change over time, either way.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Role Stats in a Role Playing Game and Their Death in MMOs

  1. I’m glad role stats are mostly gone. While gearing to hit a particular stat or build a specific set could be fun — if you got lucky with a few key drops! — too often they became an annoyance for all the reasons you listed.

    What I do miss is that sometimes role stats let your role feel significantly different from other classes who did the same thing. The main variation I tend to think of is Death Knights in Wrath. They were the ‘active mitigation’ tank at that time. That felt different than when I played my main, a paladin tank. There I was using gear to build block sets for bosses. How I approached the role felt much different than it did later on when active mitigation became the way all tanks dealt with things.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but feeling less homogeneous between classes for a particular role. Too much of the flavor (class fantasy) just feels cosmetic or surface deep.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ghostcrawler basically answered this back when Cataclysm was getting ready to come out, but in a roundabout way that isn’t the easiest to connect.

    Back then, and I’m too lazy to find the actual quote, but back then he said more or less that roughly 70% of the changes to WoW in Cata were under the hood, you would never see them. Class redesigns were optimized so that to make changes were fundamental rather than some kludgey code that some intern patched on. In other words, using a term that didn’t exist back then, they were reducing “technical debt”. And in many ways they prove that reducing technical debt does have many benefits (from a developer’s point of view).

    As we look back at the role stats and their slow removal from the system, everything, in my eyes, nods back to this one seminal event. They say that you’re not done with code when you’ve added the last piece, but when you’ve removed the last bit of code you don’t really need. This has been the theme of WoW for years – removing things.

    Not because they were unfun, but because they were unfun for the developers to maintain or work on. Because keeping them would make the code harder to maintain, or more difficult to manage, or require a higher skillset to complete, etc.

    Now, of course, they don’t say that in a blue post. In a blue post they double down on how unfun it was for players, even though they lack the metrics to measure that, but most people just believe they are wizards that can read your mind through the keycaps, I guess. Sure, you can spot trends. But that doesn’t tell you WHY a player isn’t doing a thing, only that they aren’t, and if you are predisposed to get rid of the thing anyway, well, it MUST be because the players aren’t enjoying it!

    One way you can view the code now versus pre-cata is with the analogy of levers. Pre-cata, they had a zillion things to balance, and only a few levers. Now, they have a lot of levers, but somewhere between cata and now, they determined they could do with fewer levers, and what they kept, they made as common to all classes / roles as possible.

    The REASON for reducing the number of levers is that they need as few variables as possible to come into play when it comes to tuning and optimizing. Look at the release notes for each Tuesday patch and you see more tweaks per class than you would have seen over an entire content patch pre-cata. Because it’s EASY to adjust. And while a secondary effect is “it’s more fun”, I have a hard time believing they really intended that to be the ultimate end-goal of that. Will they take it? Sure. Looks good in a blue post. Was that the intent? Ehhhhh ….

    Now, I personally PREFER more levers. I don’t like the concept of cookie cutter builds. And you would think, from reading the blue posts, that Blizz doesn’t either. “We want choices to matter”. Reeeealy? Because that sounds vaguely like, um, what’s that word – oh, yeah, bullshit! Having to choose which enchantments for my rings and having a choice between haste, versa, mastery, or crit isn’t a choice. Oh, yes, you have a choice. But that’s it. Pretty much every “choice” is made for you based on what your class and role is. In some cases you can’t even EQUIP the wrong choice, so is it a choice?

    The work since Cata has been to remove choice from the equation.

    * Talent trees, wrecked
    * Enchants, extremely limited in scope and variety (the latter hurts the most)
    * Gems – pretty much nerfed
    * Glyphs – just cosmetic now (still bitter)
    * Reforging – gone

    To me, this makes the game less interesting. People aren’t just discouraged from trying new stuff, they’re actually unable to even try. They made the choice for you not to even try.

    This is why I am excited about the new talent trees. It looks like they’re learning something, and have decided to take on a little bit of technical debt in order to actually make something that at least FEELS more fun for the players. Granted, I’ve only seen the first two, and I’m not as familiar with those as with Hunter or Disco or Warlock, but I liked what I saw.

    And yes, DUH!, I realize that there will be cookie cutter configurations anyway. SAME AS NOW. That’s not the point. That’s never been the point. Optimizers gonna optimize. The OTHER 95% of the gaming population will enjoy being able to tinker, and occasionally we might see some serendipitous breakthroughs.

    What’s next? Useful glyphs? A fuller enchant catalog? Reforging? (nah, that was a bad idea to begin with) (oh wait) Role stats, again? Be interesting if they really do start rolling the cart back up the hill.

    Like

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