Balance and Public Perception in World of Warcraft

What? You thought my writing and art blog would talk about writing and art? Well, turns out I’m a maverick. With the attention span of a gnat. Also it’s not November yet, so…

World of Warcraft: Legion came with a redesign of pretty much every single spec in the game (of which there are currently thirty-six) and this has ignited some pretty lengthy discussions about balance, and whether Blizzard are on target or not. Now, I’m no more qualified than any other of the literal billions of people talking about it, but this is my blog, so I’m essentially right already.

Up until about a week ago, I played an Elemental Shaman, widely considered to be one of, if not the weakest spec in the game right now. I am now playing Restoration Shaman due to a hilarious mishap involving a Sudden Unexpected Legendary, but before then, I was not in a good place. I was benched on raids as soon as the going got tough. I was laughed out of group applications and even compliments about my play were mediated with a “…but why are you Elemental?”

All of this, and I wasn’t even doing that badly. Even when my Mythic guild benched me to meet the DPS check on Ursoc, it was despite the fact that I was not, in fact, putting out the least amount of damage.

So why was this happening to me? And indeed, to Elemental Shamans everywhere? Well, as I said above, Elemental Shamans are considered the weakest. And public perception is a powerful thing, able to trump reality even when the evidence is literally staring you in the face, catalogued and recorded. I mean, my guild had to have known me and the other Elemental Shaman in the group were not the weakest links, because we log that data. And yet, me and him were first on the chopping block, every time.

But this isn’t a post of me complaining about that fact, don’t worry. This is a post of me taking a look at why this sort of thing happens and how it happens. And what, if anything, we can do about it.

So, here is the situation as it is perceived by most people: Legion launches, there are several outlying classes in terms of strength – some much too strong, some much too weak. Then, a hotfix comes which nerfs the absolute strongest and buffs up the weakest. However, due to all of the under-performing classes receiving buffs, there is no perceived shake-up in the hierarchy of strongest to weakest. Frost Mages, Frost Deathknights, Outlaw Rogues and Elemental Shamans are considered the clear losers. Then Patch 7.1 arrives, giving impactful buffs to almost every class except Elemental Shamans, whose buffs were very conservative. Elemental Shamans are considered the clear weakest now. Their status as an absolute joke is reinforced within the player base, and the more dramatic among us start seriously thinking Blizzard themselves have an anti-Elemental Shaman bias.

But how true is any of this?

Here is a graph showing the median damage output of some (not all, for whatever reason) of the specs prior to 7.1:

qfd4dgnThis isn’t the cleanest-looking graph out there so I’ll do my best to explain it. The horizontal line is the median output of any given class, the white boxes above and beneath these lines show where the majority of the player base fall either above or below the median, and the vertical lines show the extreme outliers, from the very best to the very worst. From this chart we can see that Elemental, the perceived worst spec (or at least one of the worst specs) in the game is actually 5th from the worst on the hierarchy. It may even be higher, as this chart is missing some specs (such as Beast Mastery and Survival Hunters). The median output of Elemental Shamans is 225k per second, with many players pushing above 250k. The very best players are nearing 350k. Compare that with the Destruction Warlock, whose median damage is only a tiny margin higher than Elemental Shamans, despite the fact they were considered “fixed” by the player base at large after the hotfix.

Then we get to the median DPS numbers after 7.1:


Remember, this is the patch that Elemental Shamans believed spelled their doom as a viable specialization – myself included. From our perspective, the buffs we received were tiny compared to classes we believed to already be surpassing us. It seemed as though we’d be dead last for sure. And yet, we’re now 6th from last. Granted, that’s because Beast Mastery has suddenly decided to appear – the data I’m using here isn’t perfect, it’s just the only thing I can find actually measuring the median. But even accounting for that, it means we haven’t changed. And while that might still be cause for complaint for some, look at the chart overall. Everyone’s median damage is now much closer together. There’s much less of a “slope” than there is in the previous graph. This patch, which some believed would only highlight the stark difference in class balance, has actually brought it closer together. It’s almost as if the balance team sort of know what they’re doing.

In fact, what surprises me about this data is how poorly warlocks seem to be doing. Affliction and Destruction, two of their three specs, make up the last and second last spots respectively, despite their buffs having been perceived more impactful than those of Elemental Shamans.

So, why is the apparent reality that balance is much closer together than we all thought so widely ignored? Why do people insist the game is in a near-broken state with some classes standing head and shoulders above others?

Because most people do not look at median data.

Most people look at data like this:


Now, the first thing you’ll notice is that Elemental Shaman is still not in last place here, despite the fact that I have manipulated this data as much as I possibly can to make that the case. What we’re looking at here is the damage-per-second done by the top 5% players in the world against Mythic Ursoc, a boss against which Elemental Shaman is particularly weak for various reasons.

If you look at this chart compared to the median chart above, there are plenty of similarities. Shadow priests doing the most damage out of everyone by a mile, for example. And the dominant classes are more or less in the same spots, with a few switches here and there. But compared to the median chart, which shows that most of the game’s player base are doing more or less as well as each other, this chart paints the picture of Shadow Priests being the clear best option for DPS, with everything beneath Demonology Warlock rapidly falling away into irrelevance. Why would anyone play those weak classes?

Well, I suppose if you’re a top Mythic Guild on the cutting edge of progress, you might want to take the pragmatic option of cutting the DPS on the lower end of the spectrum to ensure you have the best chance of success as quickly as possible. But if you’re not that, then this chart is meaningless to you. But of course, we as people have trouble thinking of ourselves as the median. The median is something you never want to aspire to be. You always want to be the best, right? Most of us are guilty of it. I certainly have been, plenty of times.

It’s the reason I spent so much time in Starcraft 2 trying to pull off complex build orders and micro tricks before I’d even made it out of Silver League. It’s the reason I get frustrated with myself every time something I draw comes out flat or wonky. And it’s the reason anyone in World of Warcraft with any notion of the concept of balance only looks at the best of the best.

Because to hell with being average. We all want to be the best.

And if you’re ever going to be the best, you have to do what the best do. Right?

Never mind that for a good 99% of the player base the difference in a class’ overall potential will only account for the tiniest fraction of our actual damage output. Never mind that 99% of the player base will never do content so difficult as to necessitate min-maxing on such an extreme level.

AND never mind that even for the best of the best, class viability differentiates wildly depending on the situation:


Oh wow! Did Elemental just get a huge buff? No. This chart takes place in the exact same week as the one above. Except this is for Mythic Dragons of Nightmare – a different boss where the strengths and weaknesses of any given class will interact with it differently.

That’s the thing about the WoW community and the sort of data we value. When we look at DPS rankings we look either at simulated rankings or rankings on bosses like Ursoc, bosses with so few actual mechanics that just standing in one spot and performing a rotation makes up the majority of the battle. Very few classes are designed with just standing still and dealing damage in mind. Nor should they be.

Look at Affliction Warlock between Ursoc and Dragons of Nightmare. Notice how it’s gone from the weakest of the weak to an absolute powerhouse. And how Shadow Priest, the undisputed best DPS in the game, now ranks below Elemental, the butt of every DPS joke out there.

And now remember that these things do not matter. For the overwhelming majority of people, be they casual players running solo content, players who dabble in easy dungeons, players who dabble in the more difficult dungeons, players who dabble in lower raid difficulties, class balance will not impact your performance, at all. Take a look at DPS charts the next time you run some content. I guarantee you will not see a consistent pattern. Until you are playing your class perfectly and in perfect gear (and almost none of us will ever achieve either of those things) there will always be variables immeasurably more impactful to your performance than class balance.

But all of this still leaves us with a big problem, a problem more harmful to our enjoyment of this game than any actual balance issues:

Our perception of it.

I can honestly say that some of my time as an Elemental Shaman in Legion thus far has not been enjoyable. I have never been as weak as common knowledge says I should be. But it doesn’t matter. If I am perceived to be weak by others, my ability to engage in group play is compromised. And if I as a player perceive myself to be weak, as I have done in weeks gone by, then I feel frustrated and demoralized. Especially if that perceived weakness is for something I also consider to be completely out of my control.

There have been literally thousands upon thousands of posts in the last month on the WoW forums by Elemental Shamans begging Blizzard to fix their class. And some bitter feelings have begun to brew there, with the Elemental community feeling ignored or dismissed by Blizzard, who insist that Elemental Shamans are fine. And Blizzard community managers are starting to crumble under the weight of all the incoming complaints.

But look at it from Blizzard’s point of view! They’ve got the data. Far more of it than us, no doubt. And Elemental Shamans really are fine! Even in cutting edge content they are viable on most of the bosses, and it would be impossible to make every spec viable on every boss without severely hamstringing design creativity in one or both of those areas. Elemental Shamans aren’t being dismissed. Blizzard isn’t being run by a bunch of morons who don’t know how to balance a game. We as players are too easily swayed by skewed or faulty data, to the point that it can even supersede our own reality (such as how I was briefly convinced of my own weakness despite no personal evidence to back it up.)

So how do we fix this? Because it is a problem, even if the problem doesn’t actually lie with class balance. When Elemental Shaman after Elemental Shaman posts on the forums about being upset, feeling like they’ve wasted their time or that the game has abandoned them, I believe them. Because it is demoralizing to play a game where everyone you’re playing with thinks you’re bad. It is demoralizing to struggle to access certain areas of the game purely because of the spec you play. And I have no doubt that Elemental Shamans of every skill level are being declined from things they really shouldn’t be, just because of how deeply ingrained these perceptions of class balance are.

As it stands, even your average player is wary of accepting anything other than a fire mage or marksman hunter into their groups, because they are perceived as the best (despite none of the graphs I’ve shown above supporting that idea). And why bother with anything but the best?

Ion Hazzikostas, Lead Game Designer, is aware that this happens. In a pre-Legion interview he referred to it as “an irresponsible thing that the WoW community does”. But he didn’t have any answers for it. And neither do I.

I could suggest that players take control of their group play by forming their own groups rather than try to get into others. But that comes with difficulties of its own that not everyone can overcome (time, social anxiety, server population etc.) I could suggest that players try to find a group of friends to run content with, because that’s more enjoyable overall, but that comes with the same issues. I could tell people to find a good, helpful, sociable guild to join. But Thrall’s balls, those things are rare. Let us know if you manage to find one.

For now, all I can say is that World of Warcraft is a social game, and with that comes social issues that even game designers can’t tackle. If you can get yourself away from the toxic miasma that is random groups, by god, do it. If not… Well, think about how much you’re enjoying the game and what you’re trying to get out of it. If your ability to enjoy yourself relies on being deemed worthy by the elitist non-elite, you might have to dance to their tune and go flavour of the month. If, it turns out, you can find enjoyment in the wealth of solo content WoW has to offer and you don’t need no stinkin’ pugs anyway, then all power to you, go have fun!

But whatever you do, don’t let WoW become a stressful game for you. Because you deserve better than that. Your time is precious. And no one should ever, ever play a game that leaves them feeling like this:


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