WoW: The Problem with Hero Classes

by Wolfshead on March 3, 2008

ArthasAs the release of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft new expansion Wrath of the Lich King looms ever nearer, I’m starting to feel unease at the prospect of a hero class emerging from the icy wastes of Northrend. MMO’s are complex organisms and the introduction of a new gameplay feature to an established MMO can be potentially beneficial or disastrous depending on how things play out.

The true skill of a game designer is the ability to predict the future with respect to how a new feature will interact with existing features and mechanics. Enter the first hero class: the Deathknight. From my point of view, there too many problems with how the folks in Irvine, CA will be implementing hero classes. Here are some of the reasons for my concern: 

The Deathknight: A Normal Class Disguised as a “Hero” Class

Hero classes first appeared in the single player game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. Blizzard has a complete page devoted to the Hero class for Warcraft III.  According to a Wiki article, hero classes were meant to be more powerful then normal units:

…hero units are considerably more powerful than normal troops and take a greater part in the completion of missions…

Now on to the current notion of what a hero class is taken from the official Wrath of the Lich King deathknight interview (emphasis is mine):

…During the Second and Third Wars, the people of Azeroth learned to fear these merciless, unholy opponents and their terrifying powers. Leading legions of the undead into battle during the Third War, the Lich King’s death knights proved both their strength and their cunning on several occasions, making them an invaluable part of the Scourge army…

So it’s clear that Blizzard is now promoting the hero class with adjectives like powerful, terrifying and invaluable. They want players to play this new class and feel *gasp* heroic. However, notice the fine print later on in the interview:

It’s also important to keep in mind that even though the death knight is a hero class, that doesn’t mean it is more powerful than the other classes, just that it will offer a very different playing experience.

What we have here is a classic bait and switch. Using the introduction of the Deathknight as WoW’s first Hero Class to lure people into purchasing the new expansion yet the reality is that they will be just like every other class — subject to the principles of class balance.

Prediction: Deathknights will be very powerful for a few months to help sell the expansion then will receive a major nerf a few months later.

Bottom Line: Players will expect that hero classes will be more powerful then normal classes but the truth is Blizzard has no intention of allowing this. In this case, perception isn’t reality. Hero classes are just a fancy way of introducing new classes into WoW which in turn helps to sell the next expansion.

Inserting New High Level Classes will Make Azeroth Feel Even More Abandoned and Empty

Blizzard has stated on a few occasions that after a quest is completed in the new expansion a player will be able to create a new Deathknight that starts at a high level. It’s been rumored to be anywhere from levels 55-60. I believe this is a terrible idea that could cause serious problems in the future.

It will allow players to bypass all of the low to mid level content from levels 1-60. MMO’s have a serious problem in that as players level up, low to mid level areas feel empty as they become devoid of players. New players have a tough time as it stands now trying to find groups and other players to interact with. Allowing Deathknights and future hero classes to skip all of this content will further add to this problem.

Bottom Line: Blizzard already has the easiest leveling of any major MMO to date, allowing a hero class to start off at a higher level is unneeded, unnecessary and harmful to the health of the MMO. Hero classes should start at level one — like every other class.

A Glut of Hero Classess Will Weaken the Viability of Other Classess

Let’s look at a hypothetical time-line of the introduction of the first 4 WoW hero classes using the current expansion development time of 2 years. (Note: the expansion names and hero class names are placeholders).

Projected WoW Hero Classes Chart

This chart shows an obvious disparity between starting levels of hero classes and non-hero classes. Once future hero classes will be released, players will have to ask themselves: Do I really want to spend time leveling a new non-hero class when I can just do a quest to unlock a hero class? Players who want to create an alt will have to spend a considerable amount of time leveling up an original WoW class then they do a hero class.

If a hero is just like any other class, then is it fair to people who wish to create non-hero classes that they have to start from scratch at level one? Not only is this unfair to the traditional classes of WoW it will create a glut of hero classes. Having too many of any class is always harmful to any MMO as it creates a dull, predictable, cookie cutter world. MMO’s designed with class interdependency should absolutely require that there be a healthy diversity of classes.

Bottom Line: Allowing hero classes to bypass potentially 60 and more levels of content will create a glut of hero classes and devalue traditional WoW classes. The negative side effects of doing this could be disastrous for the future of the MMO. Besides, real heroes don’t take $49.95 short cuts to the maximum level.

High Level Hero Classes Devalues Content and Player Status 

Another issue is that by allowing hero classes to come into the world at such high levels, is that Blizzard is sending the wrong message to players that low to mid level content is unimportant and trivial. Blizzard seems to want to reward high level players that complete the hero quests by exempting them from potentially 60 or more levels and all the “trash” content theirin. For me, every time I create an alt I fall in love with WoW all over again. I love the carefully crafted newbie zones and all of the immersive and polished quests.

In a level based character progression game, allowing hero classes to skip all of this content devalues the whole notion of status and the accomplishment of players reaching high levels. Existing players may end up resenting players who play hero classes because of this. Blizzard is already besiged by an angry players due to the fiasco of PVP vs. PVE arguments. Do they really need to give players another reason to become unhappy and disgruntled?

Fix Existing Tanking Classes Before You Introduce A New One

In the official WoW Deathknight interview, the Blizzard design team acknowledges the current shortage of players that want to play tanking classes such as warriors, druids and paladins. While that concern is commendable, why are they introducing another class with tanking abilities when the existing classes should be made more attractive to players? If players don’t want to play tanks, then Blizzard needs to find out why. Introducing a new tank class will not solve that problem and has the potential to alienate the existing tank community.

Part of the problem is this: Blizzard has created a MMO that is item-centric and damage-centric. As a result, nobody wants to play tanks or healers. I seriously doubt that players will want to play Deathknights to actually tank. The majority of players will play them so they can do some serious damage.

It’s only reasonable that Blizzard should start addressing the concerns of warriors, paladins and feral druids immediately — well before the release of the expansion. They need to reach out to each community to assure them that their issues will be addressed when the Wrath of the Lich King is released. Still, I predict that after the introduction of the Deathknight there will be fewer tanks then more tanks.

Bottom Line: Blizzard should make a serious effort to make tanking classes more attractive to players. Less time focusing on esoteric features like voice chat and more time focusing on the core mechanics of the game would be most welcome.

Conclusion

I am disappointed that Blizzard has chosen to introduce new classes in WoW as “hero” classes. Not only is their proposed implementation seriously flawed it cheapens the notion of a hero. Predictably, heroism comes cheap in most video games these days. Now with Blizzard it comes even cheaper — at the cost of another expansion.

We already have 10 million hero candidates in WoW: the existing players. Every class should have the potential to be a hero by choosing a permanent pathway that begins with culmination of talent spec and ends as a full fledged hero class. Players should be given the option to turn their existing beloved characters into heroes by performing a special epic quest. Once they pass through that door there should be no turning back via easy respecs. True heroism entails sacrifice and bravery, not a shortcut to level 60. But, we’ve already seen how Blizzard has butchered a word like “honor” with their abominable PVP system, it’s not unreasonable to think that the term “hero” will suffer the same fate.

If new classes are truly needed in Azeroth then introduce them equitably and ensure that they make sense and are compatible with other classes. Despite the clever connection to the lore of the Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard’s Deathknight seems like more of a marketing gimmick then a sound design decision that will benefit the WoW community as a whole.

–Wolfshead

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