I’m going to indulge in a small bit of inside baseball here today (and a small cathartic callout as well!).
Writing about games, especially long-lived MMOs, can be tough. I’ve been doing it for five and a half years now just here (longer if I count older blogs like Tumblr, older still if I count video content with editorial I produced, etc) and there’s this thing that will sometimes happen where seemingly old debates resurface.
When you’re trying to figure out what to write or what merits discussion, these can be tricky to figure out. On the one hand, they are in the arena of public debate now – and that means that discussing them is a sure way to both get some eyes and to also get some interesting discussion going in comments, other people writing their own posts, and the like. On the other hand, there’s a school of “thought” (more realistically a lack of thought) that puts forward that they’re settled topics – we already had that discussion a long time ago, it’s not new, who cares anyways (they say while reading your post and writing a comment on your post), and the core thrust of that argument is that there’s no value to discussing them because it would be better to just read a 10-year old post on a mothballed blog whose hosting is pulled.
I will say, quite clearly in this post, that I think the idea of a settled topic in games and gaming is bullshit and the only people who try to sell that illusion are those with nothing interesting of their own to say. It’s petty and small – trying to insult the writer without actually having the courage to say it, by trying to frame them as know-nothings who haven’t read the old texts (even if they, you know, were there at the time, have read them, and state as much in the post you didn’t read while you tripped over yourself to make a meandering comment about how pointless the post was).
Dragonflight’s talent system is a microcosm of this coming home to roost. It is, by technicality, a “new” feature – new trees, new point granting and spending methodologies, and a fundamentally different way of creating character growth over the course of leveling. It is, however, also old hat – talent trees are a day 1 WoW thing that existed in multiple forms before the one we have today (and, as a fun bit of trivia, the current model has now existed longer in the game than any form of trees did), and a lot of the discussions that can be had about talent trees in Dragonflight are going to sound the same as those that happened in Wrath, TBC, or even Cataclysm – concerns about cookie-cutter builds, the value and viability of certain choices, if players can even find identity for themselves in a system with relatively few externally visible choices, and of course the perpetual discussion of balance. On the surface, this kind of tracks, except any single moment of critical thought reveals how idiotic the notion of talents as “settled” is when applied to the modern context.
Dragonflight’s talents are clearly inspired by the past, it is true. Yet at the same time, they draw new problems into the fold – many core class abilities being folded into the trees instead of being given to all players who level the class which opens choices that can exclude certain options like interrupts, the nature of the routing in the new trees offering fundamentally different choices, especially when the active ability nodes at the spec level are often a choice of two different abilities, and the ability to freely change talents in a tree-based system, something that never really existed in old WoW trees. These conversations might have the general shape of one that happened 10 years ago in some old and long-dead blog, but the details are actually quite different. Sure, some of the metagame implications might feel like retreads even more, but at the same time, are still worth addressing in my estimation – because the assertion Blizzard continues to make is that they can balance these choices and make them worthwhile in all different forms, and with the active abilities at the class level in particular, there is a big chance that cookie cutter builds have less of an iron grip.
Right now, I think most of us (myself included) have thought of the Dragonflight talent trees as no more or less able of dodging the cookie cutter plague, but I’ve come around to thinking that there is room for improvisation that doesn’t exist today (and didn’t exist in the prior iterations of trees). If you don’t need an interrupt for raid play, you might pass on talenting into one, and that alone presents a unique opportunity that the current game systems simply don’t offer. It’s likely there will still be cookie cutter builds, but one genuinely exciting possibility is that you can tailor to different priorities a lot easier and even customize for your raid team, dungeon group, or preferred mode of gameplay, such that cookie-cutter builds will spread thinner with categories based on different modes of gameplay and even group comps. The fact that it maybe, just maybe, will be possible to have a unique-ish build that still offers top-tier performance and throughput while taking a few unique choices is cool – and with the design paradigm of the talents we’ve seen so far, there’s less of the “unique builds” of Wrath-era, where you could choose points into meaningless talents like Unbreakable Will on Priest in PvE, where the boost is meaningless to your core gameplay but you need the 5 points low in the tree to open up something else (I don’t think any builds actually took that choice, but I’m gonna bully UW just because). There are some downsides (Survival Hunter actually loses abilities going from 9.2.5 Shadowlands level 60 to 10.0 Dragonflight level 60 with the first public version of their tree we’ve seen, because they need to level to 69 (nice) to get back their current kit)(the possibility of changes announced today hopefully changes that!) but generally, the idea of the current trees is actually pretty interesting and I’m excited to see how things work out – because they could, in fact, end up being very good and balanced in a way that there is no one singular answer for say, single-target or AoE damage builds, but instead builds that allow you to account for group comp, your personal role in a fight, and playstyle, offering a base template with a fair number of personalized choices.
Outside of new-old features though, this “settled topic” train of thought extends into debates where not much new has happened, like, say, damage meters.
My posts on damage meters were interesting for me to write and gauge response to, in large part because I disagree with most of my commenters on them. Something I genuinely enjoy about writing here is that a lot of my readership is not like me in games, and plays differently, which allows me a viewpoint into modes of play and enjoyment I had not previously considered. From a WoW perspective, sure, damage meters are “settled” in that they are what they are as an accepted part of the game and not likely to go anywhere anytime soon, but something interesting happened in the comments there – a lot of the response came from WoW players, both for and against. There was a lot of disagreement with the notion of them being settled and wishes for them to be unsettled, with stories told of personal experiences that supported those viewpoints. I found it fascinating and one of the more valuable discussions I’ve had since writing, because I think I got to see a lot of varying viewpoints – I saw Heroic/Savage level players against meters, world content players for meters, and everything in-between. I still have my own opinion in favor of them, but it was interesting to see and it definitely softened any hardline approach I could have had to the topic.
Never mind the fact that what started the conversation for me was the way in which they were being discussed from the FFXIV side of the fence – a place where the topic is indeed very much not settled, although a truce of sorts is in place that hasn’t really changed even given the couple of weeks of increased heat on the matter. To someone disconnected even from the WoW community at large, playing in their own bubble, you could pout that meters are settled and not worth discussing, but that ignores the larger MMO sphere where parsing and meters are very much topics open for debate and the actual sentiment of large parts of the WoW audience, where logging and metering performance is not a black and white, simple case. Even if we accept that the debate is settled and that there is a “correct” answer, we have another interesting perspective as writers analyzing the game and the culture around it – why is it popular to discuss again? What is driving the discourse on the topic? If it truly is settled and done, then why do so many players have so many varying opinions on it? If you believe that just one blogger writing on the topic is enough to start a firing squad of opinions, okay, but like…back the point up. Provide your evidence, write some insightful commentary, do something of value! Basically and more bluntly – touch grass, preferably outside of your own self-imposed bubble.
The thing I value the most about blogging even in the current state of affairs is that it gives me perspective I don’t always personally have. Genuinely, I follow more non-WoW, non-FFXIV writers than I do those who write about either game or especially those who write about both, and a big part of why is that I enjoy the perspective of different people playing different games and having their views on how issues that I think of as resolved in my spheres are often not that simply closed to further debate. Another big contributor to wanting to write about meters was news about the changes to in-game parsing in SWTOR and the visibility of your data to other players that was shared by Shintar through her personal experiences. It creates an interesting test of my viewpoint to others, and reconciling those is how you become more well-rounded and frankly, more interesting as a writer. I still write a lot about my personal experiences and viewpoints, and I think one of the things I enjoy more than that is to try and reconcile differing viewpoints publicly, to invite conversation, even if the topic is a “solved” one as defined by some of the participants. You might be surprised that people disagree with that notion, and that doing so not only doesn’t make them “ignorant” of what came before or “lazy” but instead presenting a different viewpoint based on their own experiences – which is just as valid and worth reading as the 10-year old corpse of a post from WoW Insider that is still stored on the Engadget blog or some content you need the wayback machine and a ton of patience to find.
In fact, I would argue quite the opposite – the only lazy and ignorant viewpoint that can be had is to see people discussing something in 2022, state that it was already discussed “5-10 years ago” and thus no value can be had, and to stop reading, post a snarky and trollish comment that is faint with back-handed praise, and then retreat to their Twitter to subtweet about how stupid the writer is because they’re just a smarty-smart boy who read the real important blogs back in 2012 (even when the writer they are critiquing has also read those same posts). It would be especially foolish if they made a habit of doing this two-step in a way that contradicts their comments and calls into question any half-assed apologetics they might have written in a long comment or two, while they also bemoan the loss of bloggers.